Chapter 1: An Eventful Year
It is no great surprise when a widowed gentleman with two young children marries again, for few men would think themselves equal to the task of raising a daughter and son in most cases. When those two children were as full of irrepressible spirits as Elizabeth and John Sheppard, the need for aid is readily apparent.
Their father's remarriage, some three years after the death of their mother, might have brought far more pain on the two siblings than it did. They were fortunate to not face the fate of so many children in nursery rhymes. The step-mother was a goodhearted woman of sense, and if she was slightly more attached to the three children she bore than the two she did not, it was never significant enough to cause distress to anyone in the family.
Despite the promises of youth, made in the aftermath of losing their dear Mamma, when John came of age he professed an inclination to leave his sister and family and join the navy, for he was as a man just as adventurous as he had been as a boy, and no other employment, it seemed, could contain him. Elizabeth, who had promised to look after him all their days, felt the necessity of his going even as she mourned it. Having studied just enough to satisfy his father, John departed, and within a month, a voluminous correspondence sprang up between brother and sister. Elizabeth's letters, to be sure, outnumbered John's by nearly three times as many, but it flourished even through the inconveniences of war and traveling.
Life at home proceeded apace, and Elizabeth soon accepted the hand of a gentleman doctor from a northern county, who had professed himself an admirer of hers from almost their first meeting. All was found suitable by her father and step-mother. The doctor was no longer so very young, but he was well-looking and had enough resources to rent a handsome estate near a village where he had his practice. He had, so far as anyone could ascertain, no hidden vices or faults. His temper, in fact, was often remarked on as quite amiable, and as he had no other near relations, there was no concern of conflict with any female relatives.
John was able only to return home briefly during the engagement; he missed the wedding entirely. The night before his departure he finally ventured to say something of his concerns, namely that Elizabeth was binding herself to a man she could never truly love. John alone, more than all, knew how his sister had been obliged by their mother's death and step-mother's dependence to curb her natural spirits and be the reliable, sensible creature she appeared to the world to be. It was one thing to sacrifice small bits of herself for the sake of family. To do it voluntarily for life was another matter, and John greatly feared he must go to his father and urge him to end the proceedings, if Elizabeth did not appear certain.
Had she immediately dismissed his worries, he would have done, but in her hesitation he read all her understanding of the situation. She assured him that she had considered the matter thoroughly and felt that the difference in their temperaments would help settle her more, and if not, it was not great enough to cause undue discord in the home. She was contented.
John still felt a lingering unease, but as his sister had ever been his guide in what was right and prudent, he was himself hardly equal to the task of correcting her now. He departed in the morning with the customary smile at her injunction to "be safe" and a whispered plea that her letters not slow too greatly after the wedding.
On that score, he need not have worried. Elizabeth settled into the role of a country doctor's wife and leadership of the small village society easily, although of society there was not much. Her father's home was in a town on the road between the northern and southern counties and thus always full of doings, whereas her new home was decidedly less busy. Her husband was so much occupied and his household so well run already that Elizabeth found herself with much less employment than she had been used to having at home, where there were younger siblings and parents always in need of something. She wrote to her brother as regularly as ever.
Her husband was a successful man who had come into an inheritance earlier in life, and they lived quite comfortably. Her frugal habits, learned from the step-mother, combined with his wealth meant she wanted for no trifle she had her heart really set upon. Her husband, being a man of learning, harbored no objections to Elizabeth's great passion for books and reading and their circumstances meant she was well-supplied. Indeed, in her secret heart, Elizabeth might admit this blessing was one of the reasons she married him.
Years passed expectedly, as they often do. Each year she had the pleasure of going into London with her husband for a medical conference, which mollified her occasional fits of restlessness in the lonely, wild country of the north. John's career advanced to Elizabeth's great joy until the day arrived bearing a letter from "Captain Sheppard," and she was so full of delight over the prospect as produced a sleepless night. Only two facts marred those years, the one being that the union produced no children, the other the declining health of her step-mother. On the first score she could do little. Nature seemed to have decided otherwise for her. On the other subject, Elizabeth went frequently down to the family estate and it was some four years after her marriage that the step-mother slipped away.
Elizabeth remained as long as she reasonably could, and this event did produce a change in her correspondence, for to Kate, who was now 15, fell the responsibilities of the lady of the house. Frantic epistles begging for advice or giving it flew back and forth and Elizabeth was obliged to reduce her letters to John while she steered Kate through the complexities of the new tasks that were now her domain.
With these exceptions, life in the family circle proceeded quietly, and had they been a more superstitious people, they would have rightly apprehended that Fate was not so much being kind as biding her time and saving up a great series of changes to happen all at once.
It began with a fever that swept through the village and not a fortnight had passed from its beginning than Elizabeth found herself a widow just shy of her 28th birthday. The doctor, perhaps weakened by tending to others, succumbed rapidly, but forbade his wife from approaching too closely for fear of the malaise touching her as well. Elizabeth spoke her last words to her husband in life from several feet away.
The shock was great, and comfort nowhere to be had. John was far away, and her father's health had never recovered from his second wife's death. Kate could not leave him, and Elizabeth was left to handle the details of the funeral and burial quite alone. When the bustle of arrangements was done, for some days she sat listlessly about the house, staring at the dreary spring weather, confronting her own conflicted feelings. She missed her husband, to be sure, but underneath her grief was guilt, for although habit had bred intimacy between them, it had never ripened into love as she had expected it would. She cared for him, esteemed him, valued his opinions and enjoyed his company, but Elizabeth admitted to herself that she had never truly loved her husband.
Perhaps conscious of this secret shame, she fulfilled the obligations of mourning strictly. Yet she could not make herself keep the house, which had always been too large for just the two of them. What to do with herself was now a great question, for all her husband's money came to her, and Elizabeth was now a woman of independent means.
Circumstances dictated her actions. Kate wrote with increasing urgency of their father's failing health and confessed herself unequal to face the work of both father and mother alone. Elizabeth's resolve was formed within a minute of finishing the letter. Her books and gowns and paintings were boxed up, and she removed herself from the country to return to her father's house.
Upon entering the invalid's room, he cried out in apparent relief, "My Lizzie! At last you are come, and they shall be cared for!" Such an outburst caused a great increase in alarm on the part of the young people, but whether through Elizabeth's influence or the warming weather, their father rallied soon after her return. He lived out the summer, and was even able to sit with them of an evening now and then. Rumors were afoot that the war neared its conclusion, and their hopes were raised that John might soon be among them, but the son was not fated to see his father in life again, and as fall closed about the house, Elizabeth was obliged to write to her brother and convey the loss of their dear father.
A dark winter passed. The children were subdued and fitful by turns. Kate assailed herself with guilt over not begging Elizabeth's return earlier until her older sister quelled such thoughts. Elizabeth's only satisfaction was putting to right certain small household practices that had been her step-mother's, which had never suited Elizabeth's exacting state of mind, and her only consolation the slow close of war and news from John to look for his coming to them in the spring.
Captain Sheppard traveled north from Portsmouth with his close friend, a Captain Mitchell, who was continuing on to visit his parents out in the western country. The two had become fast friends when they were both lieutenants under Admiral O'Neill, when he was still a captain, and the friendship had survived separate commands and encounters with the French and privateers. They both returned to shore richer than they had left it.
Cameron Mitchell was by turns amused and somewhat melancholy as he watched his friend's spirits brighten the closer he came to home. Cameron loved his parents dearly, of course, but he had no brothers or sisters, and it had always been an entertainment to listen to John read parts of his sister's letters aloud, for they were not all full of details of dresses and balls as Cameron would have expected a lady's missives to be. Between the family and neighborhood gossip were decided opinions regarding all manner of subjects which proved her a woman of great education, and more than once Sheppard had stumbled into paragraphs expressing the deepest tenderness and affection coming from his beloved sister. There he would always stop, abashed, and fold the letter away, but Cameron often felt within him regret that there was no such creature in the world who cared for him so sincerely and artlessly.
The two friends parted, Cameron to continue his journey and John to close the last short distance home, with agreement that within a few weeks, Cameron would return for a visit and meet the family, including the paragon of a sister.
John's feelings upon entering the house and being reunited with the one dearest to him in the world could hardly be expressed in words, which was just as well for he had ever been ill-fitted for such demonstrations. The embrace exchanged between the siblings might speak for them well enough, for they clung fixedly together for some minutes almost as soon as he crossed the threshold. Then it was all chaos, for the other sisters demanded their turn and their young brother shook hands in a gentlemanly manner that made them all smile.
The evening was devoted to recounting his journey and remarking aside to Elizabeth upon how much young Jennifer had grown, how tall Charles was, and how pretty Kate had become in the intervening years. The next several days were filled with talks and walks and silences together, for all that had passed in eight years must be recanvassed in every detail, especially the past months so full of change.
As children they had planned to stay together always, and Elizabeth had long ago promised to keep house for her brother. The idle fancies of childhood now seemed more likely to pass, for Elizabeth expressed a decided prejudice against remarrying. She was independent and free of the world's disdain since she had successfully married once. Their home needed a mistress, and young Charles had been so well schooled in the particulars of managing the farm by their father that Elizabeth trusted his advice on such matters, so John was saved the choice of putting aside his own inclinations in order to succeed to those obligations. He was in name the master of the house now, but in practice Elizabeth was placed in charge of all with his full confidence. She had a household to occupy her, three siblings to care for and society enough in town to satisfy her, and John had a home to come to whenever his feet should touch shore.
Busy times began within a fortnight of his return, for their location near the great crossroads of the nation meant all manner of military men were going to and fro, being released from service. John had vast acquaintance among them, and hardly a day went by without some young man or other being known to be in the vicinity. Some were asked to dine at the house, others John went forth to meet at lodgings alone, for he found himself in the awkward position of having to consider whether these visitors were fit company for a respectable widow and a handsome young girl of nineteen. He was not accustomed to such decisions, and he professed himself relieved that Cameron would arrive soon and aid him with these judgments.
Captain Mitchell's imminent arrival caused some flurry in the household. Neither Elizabeth nor Kate could think of the visitor without anticipation, both in much the same vein. Kate, though considered one of the handsomest girls in the neighborhood, had been much occupied with family business, which had distracted her from society to a degree her sister thought unhealthy, and had never met with a suitor in the area who had aroused any particular attachment. Her brother's friends might afford her more opportunities than local society had offered her, and help revive her spirits.
The Captain's arrival came on an auspiciously pleasant evening, and he met with John and young Jennifer first out in the courtyard. He was conducted into the house, where he saw the distinction between the younger and older siblings immediately, for the former were all fair-haired unlike their brother, and it was immediately apparent that Katherine Sheppard's reputation as a beauty was not undeserved. The lady of the house, whom he had most particularly been wishing to meet, was in fact that last person he came face to face with, for upon hearing of his arrival she had gone to immediately give orders to prepare a cold supper and be sure the servants were ready. They had had no guests in the house in some time, and she was anxious to make her brother's friend comfortable.
Thus Elizabeth surprised him, coming up from behind as John and Charles spoke with the Captain. He turned around and appeared for a moment to be startled out of his manners, for he stared at her dumbly until John stepped forward to introduce her. He took her hand and bent to kiss it, and something in the way his eyes stayed on hers through the maneuver sent a strange flutter through Elizabeth.
He remembered himself directly, telling her with a smile that he had long been wanting to make her acquaintance, and that she had been a subject of particular interest among her brother's shipmates. Elizabeth flushed with embarrassment as Captain Mitchell expounded on how her letters had been such a source of entertainment with John's colleagues. She'd had no notion of the correspondence being known, or even that out of the ordinary, until the captain leaned forward slightly, to speak to her in greater confidence, to assure her that her missives had been a great comfort to many of them at times, when the distance from home seemed unbearable, "the eloquence of her words had brought everything a little closer."
He could not have delivered a compliment more suited to Elizabeth's temperament or tastes, for she was gratified to have been of aid to anyone, even unknowingly; the thought of how long he had been away moved her sympathy, and his sincerity gave her a pardonable moment of pride in her epistolary skills. His momentary lapse of manners upon their meeting was forgotten, and Cameron was urged to make himself at home with them most graciously.
The two gentlemen spent the next several days in idle pursuits that aped activity as much as possible, though John could not entirely escape still the business of the house. Elizabeth was coaxed to serve several luncheons picnic-style, as friends and shipmates continued to pop in and out of town swiftly in addition to the family's usual social engagements. They dined one afternoon with a Dr. McKay, a naturalist who had traveled with John for some time, and one evening with Admiral O'Neill and his wife, Lady Sara, who conferred great honor on Captain Sheppard and his sister by their visit and by staying several hours. A group of young lieutenants came through the town and some of them elected to remain when told of the assembly ball to be held in a few days time.
Elizabeth was especially looking forward to the ball. The previous summer they had refrained from attending many events, as their father was not in health to go and the warm-hearted children did not like to leave him behind. But now Elizabeth's spirits were higher than they had been for some years, and this was the first public event since her mourning period had ended. She had indulged, at Kate and Jennifer's urging, with a new gown of pale green. She looked forward to being able to dance again, and was sure of Kate's being distinguished especially by the attentions of Captain Mitchell.
Kate was for once more mistress of the situation than her sister. In the two weeks since Captain Mitchell's arrival, Kate had observed him closely, and though she suspected she was the only one aware of it, she was also quite convinced of Captain Mitchell's being utterly enamored of Elizabeth. There were a few other men who had attempted to pursue her sister in recent months, a Mr. Branton more persistently than any other, but while Kate felt Elizabeth had no interest in those men, she could not quite conceal her preference for the captain. He spoke easily with them all, was always ready to tell a story or join in a game, and did his best to keep up with Jennifer and Charles' spirits, but Kate had not missed that in the evenings when the two younger siblings were abed, the captain's eye went always to Elizabeth. Kate had been startled into this realization one night while playing the pianoforte for them all. Glancing up, expecting to see attention focused on her, she saw that her brother and sister were listening but the captain's eyes were turned towards someone other than the musician.
A very few days were enough to soothe any shallow wounds to her pride, and convince her that the captain, while most agreeable and handsome, was not a sort of man who could have seriously attached her in any case. He was older than her brother, full of passion for life that he carried openly, and too quick both to argue and forgive. They should never have suited. Kate folded away the unfounded hopes that had been planted before she had even set eyes on him and subsided to watch the drama unfold with her sister, with the comfortable assurance that at the assembly, she should still have the first dance on his arm, as Elizabeth would be with John, and Kate would have the envy of every other girl in the company for her distinguished companion.
Elizabeth was not entirely insensible to the regard of her guest, although she was not as aware of its constancy as Kate, nor did she guess his intentions. She had entertained the attentions of several men in the last year, particularly Mr. Branton who resided in town, although it would be closer to the truth to describe her enduring those addresses than anything else, for Elizabeth had no great liking for the man. However she was accustomed to thinking of herself as a widow, as withdrawn from the social whirl except as an observer, and no gentlemen she had met since her husband's death had come close to changing that belief. Knowing that Captain Mitchell had no sisters of his own, and had been away from home for even longer than John, she felt it only natural for him to be curious and to welcome the sisterly attentions which he had never experienced before. She fancied herself filling the role of nurturing older sister to him as well as to John, although Elizabeth had never wondered to herself what her brother's opinion of a certain gown would be. John had always had an uncanny talent for talking her into escapades, but when she was coerced or goaded into taking walks and rides and indulging in games that were not quite befitting a dignified widow, she never acknowledged that it was not her brother but rather his friend who was persuading her so effectively. She was not shaken from her convictions, in fact, until a completely unremarkable moment the day before the ball.
She was sitting in the parlor after dinner, taking a moment of quiet to read for herself a bit, when Captain Mitchell and Kate entered, followed swiftly by Jennifer, who was to practice on the pianoforte for a bit before bed. As the youngest child, she had always been somewhat spoilt, but her nature was sweet enough to counteract the worst of it, and she was slowly being schooled in restraint. Her being only 13, Elizabeth was not terribly concerned about her temper yet, and so was not surprised when Jennifer demanded rather peremptorily that Elizabeth retie her apron. She set her book down upon one knee without comment and turned Jennifer about to effect the reparation, but the apron string flew from her hands as Jennifer took the opportunity to spin giddly in place. Elizabeth's book slid to the floor.
She finished with the apron and bent to reach for the book only to find Captain Mitchell already there. His hand lifted the volume and collided with hers. He delivered the book into her hand but his fingers lingered for a moment, and Elizabeth glanced up to find him staring at her fixedly, as his fingertips stroked across the back of her hand in a way that made her flush and shiver at the same time.
Kate was settling at the piano and listening to Jennifer chatter before her lesson, neither of them paying attention to the others. His eyes burned into hers for a heartbeat more before he turned away, looking slightly ashamed of himself, and Elizabeth finally remembered to pick her book back up while her heart beat wildly and her head swam.
A younger woman might have thought the gesture only a flirtation or even an accident, but Elizabeth was a woman experienced in marriage, and she felt to her bones that the touch had been nothing innocent. There had been a world of meaning in that simple caress. And yet his high color and averted gaze (for she could not help but sneak a glance in his direction) suggested it had not been pre-meditated. He seemed as embarrassed by his own actions as she was flustered to have received them, but it had passed too swiftly for objection. And if she were honest with herself, Elizabeth could admit it should never have occurred to her to say any such thing.
She was discomfited all evening, acutely conscious of the captain's location in the room at all times, and frequently in a state of nervousness that he was looking at her. Her agitation was enough to register even with John, and she retired early, with the excuse that she needed her beauty sleep for the morrow, an admission of vanity that made her cringe in humiliation when she realized how it might sound to Captain Mitchell.
In vain she scolded herself for her presumption and uselessly did she attempt to convince herself that she had imagined the entire thing. Elizabeth lay awake long before sleeping that night, and the next day, she prepared for the ball in a state of excitement that would not have been out of place had she been ten years younger.
The assembly balls were a fixture of the local calendar, affording an opportunity for the neighborhood to show itself off to guests and travelers at advantage and providing a break from the smaller parties and gatherings which made up so much of the social circuit in the region.
Much curiosity was felt about the Sheppard family, naturally, as the eldest son and heir had been absent so long and he was said to be greatly improved, and his friend Captain Mitchell was rumored to be a handsome gentleman of good, if newly acquired, fortune. The rumors were fixed into fact by the time the first dance ended, for Captain Sheppard danced with his sister, the two of them smiling gaily, clearly as devoted to one another's happiness as when they were children, and both distinguished looking with their matching dark hair and green eyes. Captain Mitchell danced with Miss Sheppard, and as the young lady had hoped, there were few eyes among her peers that did not look upon her with envy for opening the evening in such attractive company.
Elizabeth was all agitation when the second dance commenced, for Captain Mitchell had requested her hand for it, which was only right and proper, but new awareness haunted her and she nearly trembled when he led her into place. It was some moments before she could compose herself enough to look at him calmly, and what she saw seemed to douse her in cold water, for he looked all politeness and propriety and Elizabeth nearly made a misstep as shame swept through her. She had been a fool, a vain little fool. She had utterly misinterpreted the events of the previous evening. All her nervousness during the day now appeared to her utter silliness and only much practice allowed her to complete the set without betraying any undue emotion.
Elizabeth had no way of knowing that while he escorted Miss Sheppard about the room before the dancing began, Cameron had been forced to listen while one of Kate's friends reported some gossip regarding Elizabeth and Mr. Branton. In the two weeks since his arrival, the affection he had expected to feel for his friend's sister had surprised him in a variety of ways, and never in that time had he heard anything of her being in any regard attached to another man. Mr. Branton had been at the house once, and Cameron had not noted Elizabeth marking him with any particular favor. But to hear an engagement spoken of in such matter-of-fact tones threw him into an agitation and anger he felt he must suppress. He had no right to his own jealousy.
Once Captain Mitchell released her, Elizabeth walked through a few more dances, receiving the compliments of friends as she passed. Mr. Branton insisted on claiming her for one set and Elizabeth kept her face composed as he plied her with compliments that managed somehow to never in the slightest make her feel praised. It was perhaps that he tended to appear to be thinking of his own generosity in giving compliments to others that made them ring falsely for the listener. Or that he sometimes presumed too many liberties for a man whom she considered herself only generally acquainted with. Elizabeth snubbed him as graciously as she could manage, and before long sought out her old seat to compose herself.
Distraction came in the form of Mrs. Fraiser, a particular friend, who closed with Elizabeth to point out that one of the young officers, John's own first lieutenant, a young man named Lorne, was monopolizing Kate as much as was decent. Elizabeth had met the man twice, given his relationship to John, and she felt no alarm at the prospect of him being smitten with Kate. He was handsome, ambitious and had her brother's sanction as an honorable officer. Kate could do far worse, and Elizabeth detected a pleasure in Kate's face at the young man's attentions that would have brought her all manner of excitement had it not reminded her of her own recent foolishness. She continued in conversation with Mrs. Fraiser and some others, occasionally diverting herself to tend to Jennifer or Charles, and tried to put thoughts of Captain Mitchell from her mind without much success.
It was a short time later that Cameron happened by accident to overhear part of a conversation occurring between two other men on the far end of the hall. He would not have listened, supposing it was none of his business, but the words "the widow" caught his attention and he could nor more have walked away than he could have sprouted wings and flown to the rafters.
The one gentleman was speaking of Elizabeth, that she was still fair for all that she was nearly nine and twenty. Marriage had not drained her entirely of her bloom. An excellent wife and manager. Quite modest and compliant. She would do well enough. It was Mr. Branton speaking thus. Cameron recognized the man's voice and with difficulty controlled his temper. The man's tone was all condescension and Cameron had some trouble reconciling the woman he had been observing with the one Branton spoke of. Did he know Elizabeth at all? To describe her as merely "fair" when Cameron would have sworn an oath she was one of the most beautiful women of his acquaintance? She would "do well enough" as his wife? Could any man in his senses believe her to be merely an adequate companion? And "compliant" – there were no words for how ridiculous Branton's understanding was. The man was a fool. Cameron was moving quickly through the crowd in search of her without further thought.
Elizabeth had no notion of these proceedings, and she was somewhat alarmed, after all her attempts to put the captain out of her mind for much of the evening, to find the gentleman himself suddenly standing before her. His hand was outstretched, he was speaking her name. He was inviting her to dance again and she was so startled that she accepted before she could think. A few moments later he had swept her into a waltz and they were spinning fleetly through the room, all before Elizabeth had time to wonder at his sudden change of manner.
Despite herself and the circumstances, Elizabeth could not contain the way her spirits rose in delight. Waltzes had ever been her favorite, the swift motion making her feel something break loose within her. Captain Mitchell made no attempt to restrain her or slow their progress. It was rather the reverse; she was flying but with his arm wrapped securely around her waist, keeping her safe from harm and feeling strangely free.
In the middle of the dance, her eyes caught his and her breath went from something other than exertion. The expression on his face was similar to what she had seen the night before, but far more open and direct. His eyes were full of fire and longing and he stared at her so fixedly Elizabeth wondered that she could remain standing under such fierce admiration. The closeness necessitated by the speed of the dance warmed her in a way that was most improper, and she feared it was all too apparent on her own face. When the music stopped and they must stand still, he did not release her right off, and when he did, he withdrew his arm so slowly she felt every inch, down to his fingers pressing against her spine before he was gone.
Others joined them and Elizabeth was hardly sensible of her own conversation. Captain Mitchell offered her his arm and it felt both natural and bizarre to walk with him through the room, to allow him to simply remain there at her side without pause as she spoke with friends and acquaintances, to yield instantly when he led her back to the floor. The second dance was more sedate but no less intense an experience, and Elizabeth was almost relieved when she recalled the time and remembered that Jennifer should have been put to bed some while ago.
The journey home in the carriage consisted mostly in mediating while Jennifer teased Kate about her conquest of the young lieutenant and Kate protested the teasing with a conscious, half-proud look on her pretty face. Had Elizabeth's own thoughts not been so completely disordered, she would have attempted to draw her out, but on later reflection she concluded it was best for Kate to have some time to deliberate before she was interrogated by her older sister and guardian.
Jennifer was put to bed, Charles retired with his usual quietness, and Elizabeth dragged herself down the hall. The maid was bringing tea to her room, which was desperately wanted. She was out of practice with so much excitement, since her role had been to sit and observe at every ball in the last year, and in the village there had been few formal events of this nature to begin with and even fewer where her husband had been present. She was quite tired out, and that was without consideration for her other sources of agitation.
Whether it was good or bad luck, she could not say, but suddenly Captain Mitchell was again standing before her, though this time the surprise seemed more on his side. He was returning to his own room, she realized after a moment, and they had nearly collided because she had not thought of running into anyone in the hall. His coat and vest were off, and he wore only a white shirt, open at the collar, and his breeches.
He steadied her with a hand on her arm and Elizabeth felt the heat of his touch sear against her bare skin. Struggling to keep her composure, she blamed the lateness of the hour and her own fatigue for her reaction. "Do you need anything else before I retire for the night, Captain?" she asked, focusing on her role as hostess to avoid considering anything else.
She was not to get her way in this, though, for he did not release her. He stepped even closer, his hand still on her arm, his eyes staring intensely into hers. "I would appreciate it if you would call me by my Christian name, Elizabeth."
The sound of her own name on his lips, and said in a voice so low it seemed to settle in her spine, made her breath catch. She was acutely conscious of their exposed position, that John or Kate could appear at any moment as suddenly as he had, and yet she found herself powerless to move or do anything but whisper "Cameron" as he bent his head towards hers.
That she was standing in plain view of the entire household in the middle of the night, kissing a man who she was in no way attached to, offered Elizabeth no restraint. His lips were rougher than her own, and yet the sensation only increased her desire to know their taste. She was kissing him back before her mind could even proceed to consider her reasons for resisting.
His arm closed about her, drawing her forward, and he sought her lips with an urgency she had never experienced. Her own hands settled on his shoulders, holding on in desperation as warmth raced through every fiber of her being.
The sound of footsteps invaded her thoughts and they separated simultaneously. He stepped back from her, receding to a more decorous position, and Elizabeth frowned as some hitherto unknown part of her resented the distance.
John came around the corner, nodding when he drew up to them. "All is set below and I am gone to bed. I have been less tired fighting an entire fleet of pirates."
Elizabeth smiled. "I confess I am fatigued beyond all measure myself."
Her brother instantly urged her to retire and only her age and the conviction of her own dignity kept Elizabeth from fleeing openly. Once safely alone in her own chamber, she undressed and climbed into bed, expecting to lie awake for a second night in a row. But she was indeed greatly tired and her last thought before sleep claimed her was that she had not merely been imagining things.
Everyone was late in rising the next day, and even Elizabeth could not summon a protest at their staying home from church. A light rain had closed in over the town in any case, and the entire family seemed rather out of sorts. Jennifer was more willful than usual, owing no doubt to tiredness. Charles and Captain Mitchell persuaded her to sit with them and play a game to while away some of the afternoon, and Elizabeth sought out her other sister.
Kate was sitting with a book open in her hands, but she was not reading, and Elizabeth could immediately surmise why. Very few questions were needed to draw out the confidences not attempted the night before, and her sister shyly repeated the confession she had received from the young lieutenant during the ball, namely, that his sole reason for remaining in town had been his immediate and ardent admiration for Miss Sheppard, and his conviction that he had never seen a woman her equal in beauty or graces.
Elizabeth was neither so old nor jaded nor consumed with her own concerns that she did not feel a thrill of sympathetic joy at this information. Kate was the pretty picture of a young lady experiencing her first taste of love, and her sister had not the heart to dampen those spirits which had been so subdued all the winter. Elizabeth trusted her brother's account of Evan Lorne's character and it was too soon to be at all alarmed about the prospects of an attachment that might only just be forming. Kate was not the sort to run off and elope, for she had not been raised to believe she had any goal in matrimony other than her own happiness, and had no reason to expect opposition to any respectable suitor from her family. She could be trusted to entertain the attentions of a lieutenant of her own brother's command properly, and if Elizabeth in her own current state was perhaps more able to empathize and encourage Kate's feelings than was normal, it could be written off to general sentimentality.
After speaking with Kate, she cornered John in what had been their father's study and conveyed to him what had transpired. He was, as ever, utterly oblivious to such matters until they were set directly before him, usually by someone more observant than he. Elizabeth was resolved on John inviting the young man to dine with them the next day, that the elder siblings might give their tacit and conditional sanction to the pursuit of interest between the young people and let them see if anything would come of it. Elizabeth was at some pains before she finally extracted a promise from her irrepressible brother to tease neither his sister or his lieutenant too much.
Her work being concluded, and the sun having peeked out, Elizabeth slipped away to the cloistered garden walk behind the house for a few minutes. Supper was not for an hour yet and she felt the need of fresh air and peace to compose herself. This place had been created when her own mother had still been a new bride, and it had always been one of her favorite retreats when she needed to think.
It was impossible for her thoughts not to turn to Cameron – to Captain Mitchell. He should not have kissed her. She should not have allowed it. The action was wildly improper and bold of him and she should have condemned it thoroughly. These were the convictions she had been repeating to herself all through the day, but now in privacy Elizabeth admitted that she had been reliving the embrace over and over. She longed for his company again, and craved hearing her name from him once more.
This would not do, though. It was bad enough that her own reputation was at risk, but she could never allow herself to behave in a manner that might hurt Kate or any of the family. She was the eldest and it was incumbent upon her to set a proper example, which did not include being seduced like an innocent girl, nor flaunting her own weak will before the entire house.
She had just worked her mind into a proper level of fortitude to avoid any possible situation that could endanger herself when she was accosted by Captain Mitchell. He drew her hand through his arm without asking and Elizabeth's carefully built resolution barely protested. They walked down the path, away from the house.
"I hope you do not think me utterly mannerless, Elizabeth," he said lowly, before she could compose herself to address him. "I am aware of how shocking my behavior was last night. I would ask your pardon for it if I could do so honestly, but I am not certain I regret it." Here he flashed her a look so flirtatious that Elizabeth merely raised her eyes to the heavens.
He sighed. "I fear my passions were somewhat roused last night, and I should not have been so forward, I know. But there is one thing I must ask you before we speak any further." He halted and she looked at him curiously. "Are you... you cannot be intending to accept that man, can you?"
Elizabeth drew back in confusion. "What? What man?"
Cameron's expression looked something like the thunderclouds that had passed overhead during the morning. "Branton."
"What?" Elizabeth cried, so loudly she shocked herself. "Me? Marry Mr. Branton?" This was perhaps the last thing she would have expected him to say in that moment.
"He appears to think it is likely," Cameron informed her coolly.
She was amazed. She had never taken Mr. Branton's flirtations seriously, and most of the time found them more annoying than anything else. "Well, I have no understanding of why he believes so. I have given him no encouragement in his suit. In fact, I have been very discouraging."
"From what I have seen of Mr. Branton's character, no mere polite excuses will drive the point through his head. That will require some sort of heavy instrument." He smiled at her then. "I cannot say I blame him for his choice, though. Or for not wishing to brook your dismissals."
She stared up at him, thinking quickly. "Was that the reason... that is, was he why you..." she faltered, not quite able to speak the words aloud when his eyes were fixed on her so intently.
"No, Elizabeth. I have been thinking of kissing you for some time. And that is why I cannot apologize for what I did." Cameron sobered. "I do ask your forgiveness for choosing that particular moment, though. You have treated me with such kindness and familiarity since my arrival, it was unforgivable of me to repay you by taking advantage of your tiredness in that selfish way."
He looked at her keenly and Elizabeth studied the gravel walk beneath her feet. "I share some of the blame. I should have stopped you."
"I am glad you did not," he said softly. She could barely keep walking forward as his other hand covered the one resting on his arm. "I am glad to know I am not alone in my feelings."
Some semblance of self-respect, or possibly a spirit of perversity, ennabled her to say to him, "You should perhaps not be so sanguine, Captain. I am hardly sure myself of what my feelings are from moment to moment."
"Ah, but I have shaken you from your composure, by your own admission," he teased. Her cheeks flushed prettily as he continued. "It is only a matter of time before I turn such discomfiture to admiration. And my name is Cameron."
Too embarrassed to speak and acutely conscious that she was on some level enjoying this, Elizabeth said nothing.
After a few moments he began speaking again. "You are not at all what I was expecting, Elizabeth. Do you remember what occurred at the moment of our first meeting? I was struck, completely, by you in an instant. I had not expected that. I have told you of how John spoke of you, how he read your letters out from time to time. I had formed a picture of you in my own mind long ago. It was of a matronly woman, plump and placid."
That caused Elizabeth to look at him in indignation. He smiled at her and squeezed her hand slightly.
"I do not know why I thought so. I had seen the portrait of you John carries with him." John had left for service with a miniature of her done just prior to the separation, as she had been left with a matching one of him that had long been among her most treasured possessions. "Perhaps I assumed that it had been drawn so long ago and that years of matrimony had of necessity altered you. When I first set eyes on you, you matched nothing of my expectations."
They paused at the edge of the garden and his finger traced her cheek lightly. "When I turned about to greet you, I was utterly bewitched. Here was a woman of spirit and fire, with the most beautiful eyes I had ever beheld." For a moment she could do nothing but stare at him in shock, aware of how her heart was racing within her breast, and how easily he could part her from her convictions of behavior and propriety. She could almost wish that the caress would lead to another kiss. Elizabeth was amazed at her own wantonness.
Cameron seemed to remember himself and he let his hand fall back to his side. "This was to be my hostess? The sister of my friend, in whom I hoped to find a comfortable acquaintance, and understand the attachment John has to you that I never could quite fathom, having no sisters of my own. Within a minute I knew I was never to know you as a sister, Elizabeth."
Her mind was cast back to that introduction, and she recalled how he had seemed so thrown out of himself, how his eyes had fixed on hers and the surge of pleasure she felt when his lips touched her skin. Had this affection for him been within her all along? Had she been allowing it to grow without restraint all this time? It was a startling thought.
She needed the occupation of walking to soothe her perturbation and she forced Cameron to move down the path. He continued his recitation of the acquaintance. "I told myself I was merely startled by how young and pretty you were, and tried to blame John's descriptions of you for my misapprehensions. But as I observed your family, I realized he had been correct in one particular. He told me you were forever sacrificing yourself for the happiness of others."
"That is not so, sir," she replied, unable to keep silent in the face of such a declaration. "My own happiness is found in looking after my family. There is no greater felicity for me but to be with them."
He looked at her seriously then. "Elizabeth, can you deny to me that you must sublimate your own feelings for their sake? I have seen you, when you grow irritated by something. You halt yourself, checking your response until you are mistress of your emotions. Even happiness you seem to want to subdue. How many times have John or I had to coax you into some activity that was utterly harmless merely because you felt you might enjoy yourself too much?"
She would have drawn away from him in anger then, for this examining of her innermost being so casually and openly made her immensely uncomfortable, but he would not release the hand on his arm. "You speak as if self-control and restraint are an evil. Is it not best to be master of one's passions, to not be ruled by indulgence and thus led to folly?"
"Do not mistake my meaning, Elizabeth. Of course it is proper for us all to rule ourselves wisely, and those with obligations such as yours, a family dependent on your good sense and judgment, must provide an example worth following. I meant no disrespect." She stopped resisting his hold, which proved to be an error, for he drew her even closer than before. "What I meant to say is that you should not close yourself off entirely yet. You are a woman of great passion and capacity for life, Elizabeth. Do not, I beg of you, lay yourself upon the shelf as a woman of twice your age who has done with the world except to observe it from a chair in the corner!"
She hardly knew where to look or what to think. This interview was proving so deeply personal to her, and yet she could not compel herself to turn and walk away. They walked in silence for a moment and finally she was driven to glance at him to see what he was thinking. She was greatly surprised at the darkness in his face. His free hand fell from hers, and the afternoon air felt strangely cold without his protection.
Cameron was agitated. When he perceived her curiosity, he seemed to force himself to continue. "I know that your heart has already been claimed by another in this life, and I would never dream of offering insult to his memory or your feelings by suggesting he was in any way forgettable to you. You were married long before I ever had notion of your existence, and I understand that an acquaintance of a few weeks is hardly sufficient to supplant a husband of seven years. I cannot know the state of your grief over his loss, and if I have spoken unkindly or implied any disrespect to your memories, I apologize."
Elizabeth flushed brightly at his words. The old guilt rose within her. She had given little thought to her late husband in recent days.
"I merely ask that you allow me a chance," he added. "To offer you proof that there may still be pleasures in life worth having. I know that I cannot replace what you have lost, and that the excitement of a first love cannot be repeated. But I care only for your happiness, Elizabeth."
The intimate tone of his voice produced a familiar response within her, even after only two days. But she could not bear him to be under misapprehension regarding the state of her heart, and she spoke before she could consider that she had never told any living soul the full truth she was about to confess, not even John. "You have not offended me, Cameron. My husband was a good and dear man. I miss him, I miss his companionship and strength of character. But ours was never a love match."
She checked herself there, trembling from her own boldness and belated realization of how such an admission might color his regard for her. It was not, after all, the most decent thing to admit that one had never truly loved one's own spouse.
Cameron stared at her intently for a moment, comprehension dawning on his face. Something like hunger flashed across his eyes before he contained himself. "I understand you. You have only proven my convictions of your good sense and responsibility. You were obliged... you were prudent and behaved honorably. We shall not speak of it again."
He seemed nearly as discomposed as herself, and it required several minutes of silent reflection before either of them were able to speak coherently.
Cameron looked at her hesitantly. "And what of my question? You have given me no answer."
"I am not entirely sure I heard a question, sir," she replied, almost saucily, for her relief and amazement made her slightly giddy.
He smiled then, and drew her hand up to his lips to kiss it lingeringly. "I asked, Elizabeth, that I might have the chance to win your heart."
Within herself Elizabeth admitted that such a battle was more than half-won already, but it was not for him to know that, even if he had already perceived more about her than she had ever honestly comprehended about herself. In later hours she could reason and produce a list of points upon which to base a rational decision that would hold up the scrutiny of any outsider, if such evidence were ever needed. But in the moment, as he looked at her with such tenderness and hope, Elizabeth was only swayed by her own instincts, which prompted her to whisper quietly, "You may, Cameron."
Chapter 2: An Eventful Year (2/3)
Another week passed, and the two ladies of the house were in such high spirits as no one had seen before. There was no doubt of the reason for Miss Sheppard's state, for her handsome lieutenant had dined with them and called repeatedly. Though it was too soon for any formal understanding to have been reached, it was clear to everyone that Kate's heart was clearly being won over by the ardent young man. Even the cook, who had been with the family since Elizabeth was small, remarked that Miss Kate was fairly shining with happiness, and weren't it a pleasurable sight after so much misery?
The rest of the family perhaps assumed Elizabeth's good cheer a result of watching the little romance blossom under her discreet observation. Certainly there was much joy in seeing Kate so carefree, but of course Elizabeth had other sources of happiness at this time. It quickly became customary for Cameron to join her in her walk during the afternoons, that they might enjoy speaking to one another with a privacy which was never to be found indoors. He did not, however, ply her with flattery and pretty speeches, and she was grateful for it, for she must have laughed had he tried. Instead, he confessed himself not nearly as well-read as he would wish, and sought Elizabeth's opinion on how he might improve himself. She was too intelligent not to recognize the flattery inherent in the application, but she could sense his wishes were also honest ones, and she was eager to give him recommendations for his study. Other things they talked of as well, from Kate and Evan to Cameron and John's adventures on the seas. Elizabeth had what was probably an unhealthy interest in the politics of the nation for a woman, but Cameron seemed more than happy to discuss such matters with her.
John joined them on some days as they walked, blithely unaware of what he was interrupting. Elizabeth found herself in an amazing situation; after longing for her brother to come home for so many years, she was at times actually wishing him anywhere but at her side.
Elizabeth found herself alone only on one evening, after Mr. Branton had called upon them. He had asked specifically to speak with her alone, and Elizabeth was left to wonder, had she not had warning in Cameron's jealousy, how she should have reacted to such an unexpected proposal. Perhaps she would have been shocked into acceptance?
Mr. Branton put his question with such condescension, such business-like airs, that it was difficult for her to remember that his feelings did not deserve wounding simply because he had insulted her own vanity. She was as gracious and polite as she could manage, but the gentleman's temper betrayed itself further with one or two digs at her age and the likelihood of her ever receiving another offer. Even had she not the consolation of Cameron's pursuit to offer proof of Mr. Branton's errors, Elizabeth would still have been incensed at his insinuations. He was dismissed with a finality that penetrated even his arrogant presumption, and left the house in a state of high dudgeon, to report to anyone who would listen that she had played him false, a piece of gossip that virtually no one believed. A few months later Mr. Branton was discovered in a compromised position with one of his own housemaids, by which point Elizabeth had so far forgotten him that she was obligated to think for a moment before she could recall his appearance.
She walked in the garden alone that night, until the chill in the air drove her inside. Cameron was in the sitting room, listening to Kate's playing while John dozed in a chair. Elizabeth walked past him, using the cover of her dropped shawl to discreetly slip her fingers across the back of the hand he had resting on the arm of the sofa. When, once seated, she glanced at him, she saw the relief and happiness in his face, and could only smile as she picked up her needlework.
The subtle courtship did not give Elizabeth much liberality to investigate Cameron's character other than how he accounted for himself, and while she was ready to acknowledge her attraction to him, she was not entirely easy on this point. It was all well and good to thrill over his smiles and attentions, but she was too much a woman of the world to think that a basis for a lifetime's commitment.
Opportunity presented itself, however, shortly after the younger lovers were forced to part. A mere lieutenant could not support a prolonged stay at an expensive inn, and Lorne was obliged to take his leave and return to his parents' house near Portsmouth within a week of the assembly ball. Kate bore his going with some loss of spirits, but her excellent understanding supported her. A letter arriving from the young man, which must have been written within two hours of his entering his parents' house to come so swiftly to the lady, revived her quickly, as did a scheme her brother put forth at the end of two weeks' separation.
John found he had some business to attend to in Portsmouth, and proposed them all to make a visit. Kate could see her lieutenant and meet his family, and Elizabeth had always longed to see the shipyards and docks, places which were so intimately familiar to her brother's life of which she had only read in books. Cameron, whose time was at his own command, was invited to join them.
The plan was met with enthusiasm, and only nearly derailed once, for Charles and Jennifer raised such a fuss about the prospect of being left behind that Elizabeth briefly was unsure what to do. Her first inclination was to leave them at home, not from selfishness on her part but from fear of the expense and trouble it would be. Usually Charles was a compliant young man, but weeks of listening to tales of the sea from his brother and their company had fired his imagination and the Sheppard stubbornness asserted itself in both younger siblings, instead of just the one of whom it was expected.
John urged Elizabeth to give in. They had all been parted so long, it would be a treat for them to take such a journey together, and it was not fair for the younger children to be left out of the excitement. It was summer, they could do without lessons for a few days, and as to the expense, he reminded Elizabeth that his fortune was now their common property, and there was a difference between prudent economy and miserly penny-pinching.
This last sally provoked Elizabeth to the point of wanting to stick her tongue out at her brother as she had done of old. She yielded to the general clamor for the trip and the house was in an uproar for several days as the occupants flew about packing with more energy than skill. In the midst of this chaos Cameron offered to go forth himself to town, to make arrangements for their lodgings and comfort and smooth the way for the family. Such an offer was no more than appropriate for someone who had been quite taken in as one of them for so many weeks, but Elizabeth read more into the gesture and was certain she was intended to read as much by the giver. He was thinking of her, attempting to prove himself a helpmeet and support to her by acting in this manner. She could not be insensible of his design, nor could she even remotely pretend not to be impressed by it. Cameron parted from them, having caught Elizabeth alone in her sewing room for just long enough to give convincing proof that even the separation of three days was to be regretted by him, and regretted fiercely.
Portsmouth was a bustling, noisy place. Elizabeth, having seen much of London, was not surprised at this, but the sounds and smells seemed to shock the younger members of the party, who had traveled so little and been used to their small town in the country. Still there was much to excite and much excitement in the novelty of the place, and the two days planned for the visit were extended to three before the first evening was out.
Lieutenant Lorne called upon them at the inn at the earliest decent hour of the next morning, and carried back to his parents an invitation to dine with the family that evening. John and Captain Mitchell, who had met them at the lodgings he had procured for their comfort, conducted the family on a tour of the town, where Elizabeth was given a glimpse of how her brother fared when he was not at home. She was accustomed to John being as he had always been in her presence, somewhat irreverent and high-spirited, loving to tease and provoke. It was a great change to see him in his sphere of business, a man of rank and reputation, respected by many, his opinion sought and given with decisiveness that was both quick and well-informed, and also clearly disliked by a few. Every dismissive or hostile glance which fell upon him made her fire up inside with indignation that anyone dared treat her brother with such contempt. John just smiled at her ire on his behalf, squeezing her hand tightly as they continued on their way.
Elizabeth began to understand what pull this life had on her brother, as well as the others. John fit here in a way she had not fully comprehended until this moment. It was as if she saw him in an entirely new light, one that added a level of respect she had never wholly felt for him before.
They had the good fortune to be accosted by the Admiral and his wife, who upon finding they were engaged for supper already, pressed them kindly to attend the party they were giving in two days' time in honor of their eldest son, who had just been made a lieutenant. Such an invitation was hardly to be refused. Though John had never been a political creature, he could not wish to risk offending his commander, and for the sake of Captain Mitchell as well, Elizabeth consented to the extension of the visit long enough for the party.
The dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Lorne went slightly less smoothly. They were decent people but neither refined nor advanced in understanding. Mr. Lorne was a blacksmith, and his wife while attractive was of delicate spirits, and almost continually professed her amazement that a young lady of such wealth and beauty should look so favorably on her son. Elizabeth could not discern whether this was meant more as a detriment against Kate's character or the young man's. But her sister was equal to the occasion, giving quiet assurances, more by look than anything else, that marriage to their son was the dearest wish of her heart, and John and Jennifer made themselves useful in diverting the conversation to happy subjects. The families parted as friends, both sides somewhat hopeful that they should not have to meet again too many times in the future, for all that they might be permanently connected within a matter of weeks.
Elizabeth devoted the next days to preparing for the party, ensuring that Kate's gown and her own were sufficient for the occasion, for she saw enough signs in the wives of the officers they encountered about town to suspect that dress was a matter of vital concern to many of these women, who seemed to have little to do but gossip amongst each other. Whispers were already being circulated that Captain Sheppard's sister, the widow, had become a particular favorite of the Admiral's wife, a rumor that gained currency when it became known that Lieutenant Lorne had received an invitation to the dance, for such a gesture could only be meant as a compliment to Miss Sheppard.
The Admiral's home was far grander than any estate in their modest town, and all the family were somewhat daunted by the scope of the place, for the building and its décor needed no ostentation to emphasize that people of taste and wealth resided there. The gauntlet of the entryway further threw Kate's spirits in particular into a state of nervousness, for every new arrival was closely scrutinized as they passed, and she began to realize why her older sister had been so exacting about the cut of her gown these last two days.
But Elizabeth had been in London society with her husband long enough to know the ways of it, and she was fully mistress of the situation. The others drew upon her calm until they were welcomed with such sincere warmth by Lady Sara that it was impossible to feel uneasy. Elizabeth offered all the proper thanks and gratitude for their inclusion, especially so late, and the invitation to the lieutenant was discovered to be the Admiral's doing, rather than his wife's, something that amused her greatly.
Elizabeth felt herself happiest, though, when Cameron approached her, his eyes conveying his admiration for her figure and appearance quite clearly. She had not had much time for him, being so occupied during the visit, and his expression upon seeing her in her best gown was enough to make her heart stumble like a young girl's. She wondered to herself, not for the first time, if this was not all some pleasant dream she had conjured, for how could such passionate affection have appeared in her life so swiftly?
They danced together enough times to attract attention, although in such company more than a single dance was probably sufficient to generate gossip. In Cameron's public behavior, Elizabeth found no reason to fear, though he would whisper comments aside to her that were on occasion breaching the lines of propriety in ways that drew a blush to her cheeks. He confined himself to such private mischief, however, and outwardly his demeanor, while not leaving much doubt of his admiration for the pretty widow, brought neither of them any shame. The glances being exchanged between them, however, served to augment the rumors chasing about the room.
They were enough to attract the notice of Lady Sara, who unsuspectingly inquired of Elizabeth's brother whether any formal understanding existed between the captain and his sister. Given that he of all people should be at the root of such a matter, being affected on all sides by the outcome, she expected he should know the details of the match better than anyone. She was well rewarded for a casual question, for it was of course only in that moment that John belatedly became aware of any sort of attachment between them, and though the lady had the delicacy to be sympathetic at the time, later in the evening she regaled her husband merrily with the details of watching Captain Sheppard's face alter from shock to something akin to blind panic as the truth swept over him.
John was not a stupid man by any means. Once the situation was brought to his notice, it took very little observation for him to conclude that Elizabeth and Mitchell appeared to be rather passionately in love with one another. The assembled strangers in the room might debate the point, but John knew them both too well to doubt the evidence of his own eyes.
He was startled, confused, all amazement at such a thing. Not that Elizabeth should attract admirers wherever she went, but that Cameron should be among them had not occurred to him before, and that Elizabeth's inclinations should lead her to return the regard only made sense after some quarter-hour's musing on the idea. He must of course be concerned, for if some sort of breach were to occur, it could cause him not inconsiderable grief, but at the same time, John acknowledged that to have his best friend marry his sister would unite many sources of comfort and enjoyment for him quite conveniently. Beyond that, his friend would win himself the best wife in the world, and Elizabeth a husband who could lighten her burdens and support her spirits, and love her as she deserved to finally be loved after so many lonely years. John concluded that the only significant obstacle to the match was that Mitchell was, of course, not nearly good enough for her, and if Elizabeth should be in any way wronged by the man, John would be required to defend her honor and injure his friend most severely.
It is perhaps too much to expect a young man of almost eight and twenty years to pay particular attention to the romances of an older sister except as they primarily affected him, especially a sister who had expressed a decided lack of interest in ever marrying again. Thinking of her holding forth at length on that subject not long after his return home, a smile began to form on his face in spite of himself. Her decision against a second marriage had been so vehement, he almost could not wait to begin teasing her about the short amount of time and meager amount of charm required to overcome her own resolutions.
Elizabeth knew him too well not to recognize the expression on his face as he settled near her. She merely looking at him imploringly. "If I promise to submit to whatever torment you are planning without protest, will you agree to withhold it until at least tomorrow morning?"
John, showing what he felt was considerable generosity and restraint, agreed to the terms of the bargain.
Lady Sara was hardly the only person to broach the topic, and Elizabeth found herself in a rather uncomfortable situation not long after her brother left her to check on Charles, who had been seen in animated conversation with the Admiral's own son of the same name. Elizabeth was rather nervous about this; she already had one brother at sea and was not sure she could endure a second following the same path. A rather beautiful woman, with golden hair and a sumptuous gown, happened to idle near to Elizabeth while she observed Kate dancing with Cameron. She introduced herself as Miss Carter, and Elizabeth knew her to be the daughter of a vice-admiral in attendance this evening.
"I understand that your family has become quite intimate with Captain Mitchell recently," Miss Carter observed to her after a moment's pause.
Elizabeth bristled the tiniest bit, for the tone of voice was somewhat supercilious. She remained steady outwardly, however, and nodded. "He is one of my brother's dearest friends, and I should hate to have a loyal companion of John's not be welcomed by us all."
Miss Carter blinked at that, as if realizing this new face was perhaps not so unpracticed in the ways of polite society as she had been assuming, for the schism in the Carter household between father and son, and therefore sister and brother, was a known fact in Portsmouth, and Elizabeth's comment, delivered with perfectly open countenance, struck home quite hard. "Indeed, rumors have reached us of the country hospitality of your home," she replied with a slight inclination of the head. Elizabeth chose not to reply, and Miss Carter pressed further. "May I ask, what is your opinion of Captain Mitchell?"
Elizabeth sensed something was amiss with this conversation but she was at a loss to know what. She answered as calmly as she could. "He is a very charming man, energetic if not well educated, and he seems without artifice or conceit."
Miss Carter nodded, "Charming? Indeed. That is perhaps the delicate term for it."
Elizabeth was quite alarmed at that and knew not how to respond, so she could only listen as Miss Carter sidled closer and whispered to her with evident satisfaction, "You are so new to our society, you may not know of the captain's reputation. He has broken a dozen hearts up and down the coast, they say. Like so many young men, he makes sport of female affections, and is reckoned a most skillful player. Never anything untoward, you understand, and nothing damaged but pride and feelings, once he has persuaded his conquests of his fidelity and devotion, his particular attention to her interests, only to disappear after he has enjoyed himself enough for one game and move on to the next."
Elizabeth trembled, her face paling noticeably under this confidence. She had no acquaintance with Miss Carter, and the lady had no reason Elizabeth could fathom to deceive her, which suggested these unpleasant details were truth. What was lacking was a motive. She turned to Miss Carter. "Is this merely the passing of information, Miss Carter, or is there a deeper purpose behind your communication?"
The lady shrugged, smiling as if to herself. "You shall know that in time, I imagine. Good evening."
Shock and confusion reigned. Her own anxieties about forming an attachment to him, the way in which he so effortlessly seemed to command her responses, the perfection of his addresses to her, all took on a more sinister cast as she turned the words over in her mind.
Her heart denied the implications fiercely. She had no proof of any of this, and further there had never been a single false note in Cameron's demeanor towards her. She had seen him smile and charm other women in her very presence and never had he marked any of them with the favor he showed for her. And yet, would that not be necessary for him to have succeeded, as Miss Carter suggested? Her mind whirled as if caught in a maelstrom.
Elizabeth was relieved of confronting Cameron, though, as he led Kate towards her, by Charles appearing to announce that Jennifer had been found asleep in a chair, which suggested the need for them to depart. There was time only for one worried glance on Cameron's part and then they were separated by the process of taking leave of their hosts, John scooping Jennifer up into his arms, as she was too sleepy to walk, and returning to their rooms at the inn. Elizabeth did not speak to anyone other than to say good night and was left to retire to the room she shared with her sisters, worn out but struggling to find sleep as Miss Carter's words haunted her thoughts until nearly dawn.
The next morning Elizabeth was on her way to the carriage which was waiting to take them home when Cameron approached herself, Kate and Charles in the upstairs hall of the inn. Taking her arm almost by force, he compelled her to return to the room she had just left and closed the door behind them. She heard Charles call for her anxiously from the other side and Cameron replied that she would join them in the coach in a few minutes.
Indignation welled up at his presumption. It was one thing for him to accost her privately but this was high-handedness too great to be borne. But before she could speak he shook his head, glaring at her. "You'll not leave like this, Elizabeth. I won't permit it."
"You will not permit it? You have no say in where I go or when I choose to depart, sir."
She made for the door only to be caught by his hand once again and stopped.
"Tell me what that vile woman said to you," he fairly growled.
Cameron drew her slightly closer. "I saw you speaking with Miss Carter just before we left the ball, and you have been avoiding me ever since. Did you think I would not notice? That I would let you return home without discovering what I have supposedly done to so offend you that you can barely look at me?"
Elizabeth dropped her gaze. "I did not say you had done anything, captain."
"Captain?" he echoed, the anger in his voice having ebbed away into hurt. "After all we have shared these last six weeks, I am back to being just a captain with you?"
She turned away, unable to bear the pain in his voice. His hand closed over her shoulder, but gently now, his thumb brushing against the bare skin of her neck in a way that sent a shiver through her. Doubt immediately assailed her, wondering if his actions were by design, although in the next heartbeat she reminded herself that nowhere in his behavior had she ever seen indication of such calculating coldness as he had been accused of. This battle had been going on within her most of the night and all of the morning, and she was tired and confused.
He stepped up behind her. "Elizabeth, please. Tell me what she said that has made you recoil from me in this way."
She shook her head. She did not want to repeat the ugly words, but she could not pry them from her mind either.
"Do not bother. I can guess the substance without hearing the particulars." Both his hands now rested on her shoulders and she was powerless to move as he leaned in close, his breath warm on her neck. "Elizabeth, Miss Carter does not like me."
In spite of everything, Elizabeth gasped out what might have been a laugh. "That much I had surmised for myself."
She more felt than heard his chuckle in response. "She has been amusing herself with the affections of young officers serving under her father's command for years. I strayed into her sights some time ago, just after I was made." Elizabeth turned towards him, too curious to resist his narrative. "I... did not respond to her flirtations as she would have liked. I have always despised such banalities, the play of love without the feeling of it. I offended her. She has hated me ever since, taking every opportunity to poison others against me." Cameron looked somewhat abashed, his hand slipping down her arm to fold over her own fingers. "I am certain she heard the speculation regarding our affection for one another last night. She would have taken great delight in cornering you and repeating her slanders to your face. I can only imagine what tatters she made of my reputation."
Elizabeth stared down at their joined hands. His words provided what she had not been able to reconcile in her own mind, a reason for Miss Carter to speak so about him, to express rumors which, despite having been in town for several days and in company with a number of people who knew Cameron well, no one had ever brought up with her before. Surely someone would have forwarded such information before now, if it were true? There was always some pious soul eager to share bad news purely for the sake of duty.
"What I do not understand is how you could give her a moment's credence. How is it that you did not come to me last night and demand my denial of such falsehoods? I have been in your company nearly every day for almost two months. I would have thought you had seen enough of my character to at least extend me the courtesy of defending myself."
Elizabeth was so overwrought by the last half-day's turmoil that she rested a hand over his heart, needing the contact and his strength to steady herself. She could not speak straightaway, and when she finally found her voice, she could only tell him, "Perhaps it was in some way less frightening to believe this was all just a plot, than to admit to the depth of my own feelings, and the vulnerability to which they have opened me."
It was the most direct confession of her heart she had ever made to him, and it was highly likely that it was only the influence of much upset and little sleep that caused her to make it. Her eyes darted nervously to his face, to see wonder breaking across it like the sun appearing from behind a cloud. Then she was pulled urgently into his arms.
"My darling Elizabeth," he whispered, holding her tightly. "I would let myself be torn to pieces before I would harm you in any way. Do not fear caring for me." He lifted her face to his and his fingers caressed her cheek gently. "Do not let fear keep your heart from me. I will protect it with my life, if you will but grant me entrance."
Elizabeth stretched up and pressed her lips against his. There seemed no possible other response to his pleas that would suffice; words were utterly inadequate in the face of his passion and conviction, and to her astonishment Elizabeth felt tears on her own cheeks. She had wept in grief a few times in her life, but never from joy, but this overwhelming swirl of emotions was so strong it was something past mere pleasure or happiness.
A pounding upon the door was followed immediately by John bursting in to find them thus entangled. "Elizabeth – oh." He halted abruptly, his face going scarlet. It was uncertain which of them was more embarrassed in that moment. John averted his gaze, gesturing awkwardly. "The coach is ready to leave."
Elizabeth nodded, wiping hastily at her face. "I shall be down directly."
The two men looked at one another for a moment, a threat and a promise both implied in their faces. They nodded to one another and John removed himself, closing the door behind him.
Cameron brought her hands to his lips. "You will write to me? I am still looking forward to receiving my first letter from you, if you remember."
Elizabeth laughed, amazed that she could feel so much lighter after so many hours' distress. "I fear your expectations of my writing skills are so high I shall never meet them," she said with a smile.
His cheek dimpled in kind. "Any word in your hand directed to me alone will suffice. Thankfully it will not be a long separation, if my invitation to rejoin you once my business here is finished remains open?"
The question pertained to more than the content of the words, and she touched his cheek with her fingertips tenderly. "It is."
There was one last, lingering brush of his lips against hers before they had to separate. Cameron escorted her downstairs and saw her into the carriage with her family, and remained behind as they departed for home.
The next few weeks were blessedly quiet. John departed for a few short periods to see friends, and Elizabeth settled herself and the rest of the family back into their usual routine at home. She was grateful for the peace after so much anxiety, although she felt another fit of nervousness when she sat down to compose a letter to Cameron. She confessed her unease again in writing, and within a few days received his reply, full of gentle teasing and quiet statements of tenderness that were so like the man she had come to know she had to smile at his unaffected manners.
After a decent interval of time had passed, an invitation was issued to Lieutenant Lorne, and he came to make them a visit with alacrity. John was at home again to receive his young officer, and he remarked aside to Elizabeth on the first evening that the young man and Kate met as though "they had been parted for centuries rather than mere days."
It surprised no one that the young lovers took to disappearing in the evenings to walk in the garden when the weather was fine enough. Nor did it surprise Elizabeth that one night four days into the visit, they came in earlier than was usual. Kate's face was bright pink and she seated herself next to her sister in evident agitation. Instead of picking up a book or some sewing or otherwise employing herself, she merely sat, trembling nervously with her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
Elizabeth watched as Lorne approached her brother, who was seated at the table. She could see John's face as the young man leaned over and made some whispered request, and she saw the smile which flashed across his lips. He stifled it, however, composing his face into a solemn mask before rising and leading the other man out the door into the hallway. Elizabeth smothered her own smile and placed a hand over Kate's cold ones.
Kate seized Elizabeth's hand as if holding desperately to a life-line.
Elizabeth could not help the amusement she felt, even if she was careful not to show it yet. There was no earthly reason why John should have the slightest objection or withhold his consent to the match. He knew Lorne's character better than any of them. It was reasonable to assume he would do all he could to promote his lieutenant's interests on general principle, and with his own sister's happiness at stake John would not hold back any help he could offer. To be sure, they would not start out life in grand estate, but there was everything of character, temper and affection in favor of them being quite happy together.
It did seem an inordinate amount of time passed that the gentlemen remained outside, and when the door finally opened Kate flew up from her seat with uncharacteristic energy. Elizabeth saw the relieved look on Lorne's face at a glance, but John approached them, placing his hands on Kate's shoulders and kissing her forehead gently before offering his sister his congratulations.
Elizabeth embraced her new brother and Kate, and retired with John to the study, to allow the young people a moment to share their rapture in peace.
"I believe they shall be happy together," she said as they rested side by side against the heavy oak desk which had belonged to their great-grandfather.
"Yes. I rather wish he was more advanced in his career or his fortune, but he will move earth and heaven to make her comfortable," John observed.
"They have Kate's dowry which our father provided. With his own income it should suffice them to begin. Kate has her mother's skills in economy. I rather think the difficulty will lie with Evan, for he shall want to provide her with every luxury regardless of the expense."
John smiled at that, and then sighed. He put his arm about her shoulders. "We are growing old, Elizabeth, when our little sister is going off and attaching herself to a dashing young lieutenant."
"Speak for your own part, brother," she said with a laugh.
"That is right, you are yourself lost to all reason and sense by love," he retorted with an affectionate squeeze. "When should I expect my friend to return to us? By now you know more of him than I do."
Elizabeth had become so inured to his teasing on this subject over the last few weeks that she did not flush even faintly. "I have not heard from him in a few days, as he has gone to Exeter to visit a Mr. Ferguson."
"Ah, Ferguson," John shook his head sadly. "He had the makings of a good officer, but he was wounded in a skirmish with a privateer some years ago."
Elizabeth thought of the many hours of alarm she had experienced while John was at sea. The trip to Portsmouth had contained enough reminders of how fortunate they were that John had come home whole and healthy. "I confess I do not envy Kate the worry she will have, with both a husband and brother in uniform."
John raised his eyebrows at her. "You do not have that fear for yourself? You could soon have a brother, brother-in-law and husband on the seas."
She did not answer right away, until he stiffened in alarm. "Elizabeth? Has Cameron not-"
"No," she interrupted, catching his clenched fingers in her own. "We have not discussed the future or his intentions in that regard."
"If he has not proposed yet, he will soon. I have never seen Cameron so enraptured of a woman as he is with you."
"You know this from your one evening's observation?" Elizabeth retorted.
John sighed as if he was exhibiting great patience. "One hour was enough to convince me of his regard for you. He is not a man of subtlety."
Elizabeth could hardly have resisted the opportunity now before her. "You have seen him with others, I suppose. He is a charming man, even when he is not exerting himself."
John shrugged. "He is polite to all, and far easier with speaking sweet platitudes than I will ever be. But he has never spoken of any officer's sister or gentleman's daughter with any particular warmth, if that is what you wish to know."
It was enough. The last distress in her heart over Miss Carter's insinuations faded away.
John was silent for some time, staring at his boots, and clearly thinking carefully. "Elizabeth, I suspect it would never occur to you to ask my blessing, as you have been managing for yourself for nearly ten years without needing my input, but I wish you to know that I am happy for you."
She leaned her head on his shoulder, more touched by the awkward compliment for knowing how difficult her brother found to speak such things. Instead she queried him, "And if he should make me unhappy at some point?"
"I shall knock some sense into him gladly," John answered promptly.
Chapter 3: An Eventful Year (3/3)
When Lieutenant Lorne left to return to Portsmouth, it was with the understanding that in three months' time, he should return to take Kate away as his wife. The young man would, to be sure, have preferred a shorter engagement, but his betrothed determined it best to delay that long. Her avowed reason was the time required for preparations of her wedding clothes and various items she would need to begin keeping her own house. But inwardly, Kate was behaving as she believed her sister would have, following a prudent course rather than hastening into marriage when the only factor urging speed was the rush of emotion.
Fate would intervene in these plans with a great demonstration of irony. Had the engagement been set a shorter amount of time, the marriage would perhaps not have ended up delayed.
Cameron had remained some time with his friend in Exeter and was obliged to return to Portsmouth on said friend's behalf before he could resume the company of his beloved Elizabeth. The letters between them grew more frequent as the separation progressed, and Cameron, though not the writer his lady was, began to pour more of his frustration and longing into the missives than he would have believed himself capable of expressing in such a manner. Although Elizabeth honored his reasons for staying away, she found herself far unhappier over his absence than she could have ever expected.
She was also deprived of John's company for some while, as he left them to visit Dr. McKay and his sister. Elizabeth had been included in the invitation, but Kate was occupied with dress and details for her wedding, and someone was needed to keep an eye on Jennifer. Charles was still making noises about the life of adventure on the sea, though more to cause his eldest sister alarm than from any real inclination, for he had concluded during the trip to Portsmouth that while battles and pirates were entertaining enough, the privations aboard ship must pale in comparison to the ivy-covered walls of Cambridge, where he intended to go in the fall.
On a particularly stormy evening Elizabeth was startled from her sewing by the sound of someone at the front door. It was late, the post had already come, having not delivered a letter from Cameron or Lieutenant Lorne, a rare occurrence. Alarmed, Elizabeth gained the hallway to find her brother, dripping from the rain and looking half-wild. He was not to have returned for another two days.
Kate's whereabouts were his first question, and upon being told she had retired for the night already, John ushered Elizabeth into the study and produced from his pocket two folded letters. With trembling hands, she sat down and opened the first. Although the letter had clearly been composed in great haste, she recognized Cameron's hand instantly.
"Sheppard – Something has occurred in the family of young Lt. Lorne which is causing great alarm. It may endanger the engagement. I have not yet the particulars; will write as soon as I know. I urge you to prepare to leave at once. You may be needed here."
Elizabeth felt dread steal through her. She glanced at her brother, who was attempting to dry himself off before the small fire. She picked up the second letter, which was longer but even more alarming. Mr. Lorne, the lieutenant's father, had been discovered to be greatly in debt. Not from the usual vices, but rather from an excess of virtue. He had trusted where he should not have, and his meager savings were gone, along with several items of value, to a scoundrel of a businessman who was now disappeared. The family were destitute and in danger of losing the roof over their heads. The oldest son and daughter were both married and unable to provide any substantial aid. The two younger boys had nothing to contribute. The lieutenant was the only hope of the parents; all his small savings were offered, but Cameron feared the sum would be insufficient.
Fear raced through Elizabeth. The poor young man, compelled to support those who should exist to support him! Forced to give over everything, including his prospects of happiness, in a futile attempt to save them! While she respected the lieutenant even more for his sacrifice, for Kate to marry him while he was penniless was out of the question. Her small dowry would never support them adequately. The marriage must be postponed. But how was such a situation to be mended?
She tore herself from these thoughts to read the conclusion of the letter.
"Lorne is determined to address this himself, and desolate over Kate. I try to interest others in the matter but the Admiral is from town at the moment and my influence is limited. Efforts have been concentrated on the landlord to procure a delay before the family is turned out. To save your sister's engagement, I urge you to join me here as soon as possible. Bring Elizabeth with you; I have not the understanding of rents and leases to parse the case, and she may be invaluable to us in untangling this."
The passage of several hours would be needed to order her mind to all of this dreadful news, but she had not hours. If she was to depart, preparations must begin at once, and yet, she was unable to agree entirely with Cameron's assessment. She had no earthly idea how she could truly help.
She said as much to John, but he ignored her protests. "If there is any chance of saving Kate's happiness, I would not wish to overlook even the smallest advantage, Elizabeth."
She acquiesced, and the problem of how to break the news to Kate became the next obstacle. Before either she or John could settle on a plan, there was a knock and the young lady herself was before them, having heard the disturbance of John's arrival and come to investigate.
Though only just mistress of the situation, Elizabeth must steady herself, draw Kate to a chair and repeat the news. There was no way or time to soften the blow, and even so intelligent and rational a girl as Kate could not be expected to find calm or reason in the circumstances. After the first exclamations of horror were over, she rose, intent on beginning to pack, for she declared her intention to accompany them to Portsmouth. Being there to support her betrothed was her only object, and she would not be persuaded from it, until John spoke with a harshness none of them had ever heard from him. "You will obey me and remain here, Kate. If the situation is resolved, you will be sent for, but I will not have you defy me in this matter!"
The unexpected outburst stunned both the women into silence. John stalked to and fro before the fire for a moment before approaching Kate, who was trembling from head to foot now. John held her by the shoulders, much as he had the night of her betrothal, but his voice had softened greatly. "It would only pain him to see you now, Kate, when he fears he must be separated from you forever. Do not cause him further grief by reminding him of what his honor could cost him. Your sister and I will go in the morning and do everything in our power to salvage the situation, but you must trust and leave the matter to us."
For a moment Elizabeth was unsure she would acquiesce, but then Kate twisted from his grasp and hastened from the room without further speech. Elizabeth had no doubt that a very long letter was about to be composed which they would carry to Portsmouth.
She looked at her brother, who was now all nervous energy and excited temper. She considered reprimanding him for the tone he had taken with Kate, especially in so delicate a moment, but she knew John well enough to know that he never could take remonstrance well on general principles. To scold him now would only inflame the situation further. Leaving such matters to be talked of later, she quit the room to begin making preparations for the sudden and most unwelcome journey.
The foul weather accompanied them to the coast, and Elizabeth's only comfort was the sight of Cameron waiting for them at the inn. Even that relief soon slipped away, for after one stolen moment of greeting, he drew them to a table and spoke gravely. "I fear the situation has worsened since I wrote to you, John. Mr. Lorne did not merely offer up his own meager outfit, he has borrowed money from several men to make up the sum demanded by the villain. His own resources are thus gone, and he may have more to fear than debtor's prison. Some of these fellows are of the worst sort of disrepute, and they will be satisfied only with coin or blood."
Elizabeth was aghast for a moment. A father-in-law in prison, or worse? Lack of wealth was one problem but this was a different manner of obstacle for the engagement, and might prove to be something they were not able to overcome.
John folded his hands before him on the table. "The lieutenant's fortune is not enough?"
Cameron scrubbed at his eyes wearily. "Not to cover the loans and the rent on the house and shop. It could suffice for one or the other, but both together is too much. The landlord has discovered this news of the borrowing and is insisting on the family vacating the premises immediately. Our only good news is the Admiral has returned as of last night, and has finally brought to bear some authority to those searching for the swindler."
"But, the rent is not due till the beginning of the month, is that not the case?" Elizabeth asked, confused. When Cameron nodded, she protested. "There is no legal basis then, for the landlord to kick them into the streets as of yet. They are paid through the end of the month, which is still two weeks hence."
A weak smile passed over his face and she realized this was precisely the reason why Cameron had asked for her presence.
"I think perhaps we should have Elizabeth close with this landlord, and see if she cannot set that portion of things to rights," John said with a touch of irreverence. "You and I may see to some of these disreputable men," he added to Cameron.
Elizabeth started in alarm but she was quickly overruled by her brother. "I am accustomed to commanding men who have sworn loyalty to something greater than themselves and submit willingly. I have not the gift of talking 'round those who have no reason to help me without the use of my fists, whereas you, Elizabeth, have had that ability from the cradle. Let us each go with our strengths."
Cameron proposed that he and John visit the lieutenant and then his father immediately while Elizabeth remained at the inn to recover from the journey. John stepped out to his room for a moment and Cameron approached her, taking her hands in his and kissing her fingers lingeringly. "I should never have wished our reunion to be under such circumstances, but I confess, it does me good to see you again, Elizabeth."
She smiled sadly. "I was thinking much the same thing."
"How fares your sister?"
Elizabeth sighed. "Not well. The suddenness of these changes, so close to when the wedding was expected... she grew quite defiant with John last night when he told her she must remain at home."
"It was right that she stayed away. Lorne is beside himself, and if he sees her again and comprehends what he may be giving up, his will could fail him."
Elizabeth drew away in some exasperation. "Why do you assume she would attempt to dissuade him from his course? She would insist on him following it is more likely. And why do you all assume Kate's attachment is so shallow that she will give him up so easily? I understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the wedding must be delayed if he is so reduced, but that does not equal its cancellation. Her heart is not so fickle!"
"I did not mean an insult to Kate, Elizabeth. But he knows that asking her to bind herself to him when he will lose almost everything would be unfair. He would rather release her than witness her suffering because of him."
"Should it not be for her to decide what is fair and what is not?" Elizabeth replied angrily.
"It has been my experience that the world's judgment of what it thinks is fair almost never matches my own," Cameron replied with dryness. "It is his choice as well as hers."
She thought for a moment. "Does he truly believe she will abandon him, especially given how he struggles to do rightly no matter the cost?"
Cameron did not answer immediately. He looked towards the fireplace for some moments before speaking slowly. "I think it always surprises a man when a woman stands by him through loss of fortune or any such disaster. It sometimes seems loss of virtue or honor is preferable to the sacrifice of money."
She stared at him, wondering what prompted such an observation. "Is that what you think of me?" she questioned in a low voice.
He met her eyes and she could see the fire burning them as he answered her, "No. I think, once you bound your fate to another's, you would not abandon him till the gates of death closed between you."
In the silence that followed it seemed to Elizabeth that they stood on the precipice of something that had been approaching for some time. But John returned and the two men went out into the rainy evening, leaving Elizabeth to settle their belongings and ponder all that had happened in a scant four and twenty hours.
Mr. Lorne had objected to every level of interference in the affair for days, even though he was completely helpless in extricating himself from the circumstances he had created. Elizabeth had felt all along that an obvious solution was lying in plain sight before them all, and was almost grateful when her brother's patience finally snapped. But the offer of a loan from the Sheppards' was vehemently declined. He would not accept charity from those who would shortly have been relations, had his own character not been so at fault. No argument could move him, no plea could sway him.
His son finally overruled some of his complaints by virtue of being the only thing standing between his mother and brother and the alms house. Captains Sheppard and Mitchell were empowered to settle the debts taken on by the older man, using the lieutenant's own resources to remove at least that much of the danger.
The objections were renewed when it was learned that Captain Sheppard's sister was to appeal to the landlord, a man named Woolsey, on behalf of the family. His wife intervened and said, with coldness her husband might best become accustomed to, that they were in no position to refuse the help of the wild man of Tanzania at this moment, much less that of a lady of fortune and high reputation.
John and Cameron departed to handle the rougher business of the creditors. The family went out on some contrived errand while Elizabeth remained in the small house and was waited on by Mr. Woolsey. The lieutenant was with her. She served tea and listened as Woolsey vented his frustrations. Elizabeth could have some degree of sympathy for him. A landlord must maintain discipline in his rents, or else be utterly broken in a short space of time by those seeking to take advantage. Woolsey assured her that he was not unfeeling, that he appreciated that the blacksmith had been a reliable payer for almost ten years, far longer than any of his other tenants. But the presence of the debts was too much. He could not have his good name connected with such things.
Elizabeth listened to him patiently, her mind beginning to formulate questions and find order in the information. She was quiet so long that the lieutenant began to shift nervously but she put him out of her thoughts. "May I ask, is it then only the fear of these less than credible men that causes you to insist on the family vacating the premises so soon, sir?"
Woolsey hesitated. "Well, it is my understanding that the debts are so great, there is no possibility that money enough for the next month's rent can be collected."
"The outcome is not yet certain, so far as I know," Elizabeth said demurely. While her brother and Cameron were engaged in removing that particular obstacle, they had not among themselves arrived at a solution for covering the expenses of the rent and household once the debts were gone, but Mr. Woolsey need not be made aware of such news yet. She kept her expression carefully neutral. "But if the outcome is in doubt, you surely would not defy the law and roust a tenant who is paid up for another two weeks? That would bring its own damage to a landlord's reputation, would it not?"
Had her voice wavered in the slightest, she was certain he would have taken her words as a threat, but she was accustomed to speaking with ladies in sewing circles and ballrooms who assumed every sentence was a verbal knife. Elizabeth was well practiced in maintaining her poise, as Miss Carter had learned some weeks earlier.
He faltered slightly. "I suppose that is true. I had not thought of it in such a light, but it may be seen as unfair."
"Mr. Lorne's oldest son is a tenant of yours as well, is he not? I confess I am not familiar with the intricacies of a tradesman's life, and I have no way of knowing what stress it might cause, but," here she dropped her voice as if speaking in solicitous confidence, "Are you not afraid that he may remove himself to a different situation if he feels his father is treated unfairly? Then you would have cost yourself two reliable tenants and on information that is not certified."
She foresaw his next words as clearly as daybreak, but kept her countenance.
Mr. Woolsey considered the situation for a moment. "Indeed, indeed. It would be precipitate, now I think of it, to act before all the facts were in, so to speak. Though, I am not encouraged, madam, not encouraged at all by the reports that have come to me. If the month should end and it be proved there is no possibility of the rent being paid, I shall have no other recourse, whatever the son may choose to do."
"Naturally," Elizabeth conceded with a slight nod. "Many things may change in the course of one week, much less two. We have no way of foreseeing how the situation may stand at the end of the month." She sipped her tea and then sighed. "Although, it strikes me that this is a most grievous loss for you in particular if the family be found only short by a certain sum."
"I am afraid I do not understand you, madam."
Elizabeth sat back in her chair, looking at the dingy window as if in deep thought. "You have told me that Mr. Lorne has been a most reliable and long-serving tenant. By your own admission he has not been late with his rents by so much as a day in the past. That must have been a great advantage to you in all these years."
"Yes, it has indeed. So many tradesmen come and go through the town, it is difficult to find anyone to settle for more than a twelve-month."
"You of course know more of your business than I do, sir. But I do wonder, in these circumstances, if it might not be best for both parties for you to agree to some sort of extension."
He seemed to nearly spit his tea over himself at her words. Elizabeth offered him a napkin and maintained her most innocent air, keeping John's countenance firmly in her mind as inspiration.
"Madam, you clearly do not know the business in the slightest! I could no more yield on such a matter than I could alter the flow of the seas! An extension? To allow a tenant to inhabit that which he has not paid for? I might as well throw wide my doors and run a charity."
She tilted her head to the side as if debating with herself. "Yes, I suppose," she answered with reluctance. "But if they were able to pay some portion of the rent, at least until they were able to pay the full amount as well as the missing funds, they would not be subsisting on your charity nor would they be forced into the streets."
Woolsey stared at her for a long minute, which nearly caused Elizabeth's composure to crack. Finally he said flatly, "If I were to do such a thing, there would be no stopping my other tenants from hearing of it. I should be besieged on all sides at the end of every month with tales of woe and tenants begging my indulgence on their bills until I should have nothing left."
Elizabeth had considered this objection and had her answer prepared. "Well, of course that could not be allowed, sir. But could you not answer those others who press for such favors with the idea that when they have been as punctual as Mr. Lorne for as many years, they may also expect such consideration, and not a moment before?"
The interview concluded shortly afterwards, with the lieutenant offering himself as a safeguard against his father's conduct in the future and guaranteeing that payments would be made. Although he and Elizabeth had no idea how that was to be managed yet, it was at least a place to being. Mr. Woolsey left, looking somewhat stunned and confused, and Lieutenant Lorne bowed to Elizabeth slightly. "I confess, when Captain Mitchell insisted that you come, I thought to myself he might be abusing the situation as an excuse to see you again for his own personal reasons. I find myself somewhat in awe, madam, and not too proud to admit that I consider myself thoroughly corrected."
It was late afternoon when Elizabeth finally saw her brother and his friend again. She was in the midst of writing another letter to Kate, who she was sure was desperate for even the tiniest particle of news, when the two men came in and she started up in alarm. John sported a bruise under one eye and Cameron's sleeve had a stain on it that she realized with horror must be blood.
They seemed perfectly sanguine, however, and though they submitted to her urgings to sit and allow her to tend to the wounds, unless she was much mistaken, the gentlemen seemed almost excited by the work of their day.
They reported that the creditors were all dispensed with, some not without persuasion. John pressed her for an account of her interview. By its end Cameron was looking at her with amazement and John actually leaned his chair back and smirked. "Elizabeth could convince the Pope to turn Protestant were she given a fair crack at him," he observed.
She flushed, scolding him for saying such things.
Before anything more could be discussed, Lieutenant Lorne burst in on them in a state of such agitation he fairly yelled, "Which of you is responsible for this?"
John and Cameron had both started up from the table, instinctively stepping between Elizabeth and the doorway. The lieutenant collected himself in a moment, no doubt recalling that he was addressing two senior officers, but Elizabeth saw a conscious look between the two captains that roused her suspicions.
It was John who answered his subordinate. "Your father's objection was to taking anything directly from me, Evan."
"And did you think, sir, that I do not share my father's pride to some degree?" Elizabeth rather thought the question lacked something of conviction. The young man looked excited, half-fearful and half hope.
"What is going on?" she ventured to ask of the room.
Lorne looked at the other two, who were somewhat sheepishly avoiding her eyes, and answered her, "I spoke to the solicitor and it appears my accounts are again what they were two days ago, even though those sums were to have been used by the captains this morning on my father's behalf."
Elizabeth stared, looking from her brother to Cameron and back. Years of authority as his elder sister finally caused John to break under her expectant gaze. "It was Cameron's notion," he muttered, resembling nothing so much as a schoolboy caught out in a prank.
Cameron offered his friend a half-hearted glare. "You should have done it on your own even had I not suggested it."
"Both of you?" Lorne interrupted, somewhat weakly.
"Will someone not speak plainly?" Elizabeth cried in frustration. She thought she had a sense of the business, but like the young man, she almost dared not hope it was so.
"Captain Sheppard and I paid off the creditors in your father's name," Cameron said to Lorne. "As had been agreed to. It was never stipulated precisely where such funds were to be drawn from."
As the lieutenant sputtered, Elizabeth regarded Cameron with frank appreciation. He had not the slightest obligation to have involved himself in any of this affair except the tenuous connections of friendship with John and admiration for her. And the bonds of friendship or even love only rarely encompassed any forfeiture of material resources.
John spoke to his young officer. "There was no other way, Evan. Your own savings were never to be enough to cover all of your father's expenses, and there was no reason for you to throw yourself on your sword if it was to be in vain. Using that which you earned fairly to keep a roof over your mother's head is a worthy cost to bear." And it was the lesser of the two halves of this mess, Elizabeth knew. With the debts lifted and the agreement on the rent arranged, the younger Lorne would not be utterly wiped out himself.
He would still not be able to marry Kate right away, but now the delay would not be so very long.
"This is no gift either, Lorne," Cameron put in. "I shall expect you to begin repayment of this sum, on the day after you have been married to Miss Sheppard for one year."
Relief and joy broke over the young man's face, yet all three of the gentlemen turned to Elizabeth, as if waiting for her approval of the settlement. She could only smile and put a hand on her brother's arm. "I imagine, sir," she said to the lieutenant, "that my sister should expect a letter from you tomorrow which will alleviate much of her distress."
There was much confusion of hand-shaking and expressions of gratitude. The young man left them to inform his father and mother of the situation, with grim resolution that the father should not be allowed to protest the arrangement which had salvaged them all from the situation better than could reasonably have been expected even one day ago.
Elizabeth could not be easy until she pried the particulars from the two men, and she obligated them to recount their thinking to her and the process by which it had been carried out. She then bade them leave her so that she might finish the letter to Kate, with a much lighter heart than it had started with.
After supper Cameron offered himself as an escort so that Elizabeth might walk in the fresh air for a little while. John remained behind to handle correspondence of his own, and the two of them set forth to the small public garden not far from the inn.
"I do not know how to thank you," Elizabeth began, though as she expected, her gratitude was waved off almost immediately. "The thought of you participating so intimately in fixing this situation had never occurred to me, I confess."
"I was pleased to be able to help, Elizabeth," Cameron said somewhat abashed, as they halted beneath the shade of a large oak tree.
"But you were under no obligation. There was no reason for you to intervene in any way, much less in such a way."
"I would like to believe I would have done as much for a friend's sister and a fellow officer under any circumstances, but Elizabeth, you cannot be ignorant of the fact that I consider myself bound to you and your family by ties far greater than mere friendship."
He spoke this in a low voice, and Elizabeth's cheeks heated slightly. The question which had been burning within her since the afternoon came forth. "I must ask, Cameron, if our conversation the night I arrived in town had an effect on your decision."
He looked rather pleased by her perception. "It did. When the situation first became known to me, and I urged Mr. Lorne that you and John be sent for, I could see his resistance to taking charity from you. The thought occurred to me then that if he would not accept such help from you, he could perhaps be convinced to accept it from myself. I did not think the Lornes knew anything of my attachment to you, and they might believe I was simply moved by compassion and loyalty to the lieutenant."
"Oh, Cameron! But to take so much on yourself! The amount required to do away with all the debts would have been..." Elizabeth could not continue. Divided between himself and John the sum was not inconsiderable, but neither of them would suffer terribly for the loss. Had the total been entirely on Cameron's shoulders, it would have reduced his lot severely.
"I knew I could not support it all on my own, which was one reason why I did not propose it aloud until John and I were alone, on our way to see the family. He immediately said he had been thinking much the same thing, and we came to an agreement that we should share the burden of the creditors."
Elizabeth felt a flicker of annoyance that they had not seen fit to share this information with her, particularly since she had been left to deal with the landlord not knowing that the situation was so well in hand.
Cameron hesitated as if reading her thoughts. "My one concern was that I feared you would be upset with me for not discussing it with you beforehand." However his next words proved his reasons to be quite different from hers. "Such an action could affect us both, and you deserved to have it known to you."
She looked away at the sunset visible through the small stand of trees. "I have no authority to dictate to you how you dispose of your own property, Cameron."
"I should never have done it if I thought it would affect your comfort, Elizabeth." He reached for her hands. "I know that you are reliant on no one for your own security, and that John would never suffer his family to want for anything. And I thought, I hoped, that you would understand my motives, and that the loss of fortune would not alter your opinion of me."
She could not help a small smile at that. "It has, Cameron." There was a moment of wild alarm in his expression before she squeezed the hands that held her own so tenderly. "It has increased my opinion greatly in your favor. It was a noble thing to do."
He blew out a long breath in apparent relief, and Elizabeth wondered again what history might have led him, even after their own conversations on this very topic, to be so surprised that a woman would rather have a good man willing to make himself poorer for the sake of a friend than a rich man who was incurably selfish.
"Then I am forgiven for concealing my intentions from you?" he asked, kissing her hand with a smile.
"In this matter, yes," she replied with affected haughtiness. "However, I would wish you not to make a habit of such things in the future."
"I have not the slightest intention of doing so," he replied. "In fact, I have been thinking that there is a lesson for us in the situation poor Kate and Evan find themselves in now."
Elizabeth's heart began to beat faster. "And what lesson might that be?"
"That a long engagement may turn out to be imprudent for two people very much attached to one another, with no great obstacles in their way." He drew her even closer, his voice dropping down to the low tone which always affected her so strongly. "I do not wish our engagement to last so long."
She wondered distantly if she was about to faint, for her pulse was racing and her whole being trembled against his touch. His hand cupped her cheek. "Need I say it, Elizabeth? I have loved you from the moment I first set eyes on you. I want nothing in the world more than I want to marry you, to be your husband, your lover, your partner in all things."
She could not speak right away, for feelings both exquisite and overwhelming wracked her, stealing her breath, bringing tears to her eyes.
He framed her face with both of his hands now, his eyes searching hers. "Will you give me your heart, my love? Will you be my wife?"
There was no hope of steadiness or calm. Elizabeth drew in a ragged breath against her tears, her hands resting against his chest, and nodded. "I will. Cameron, you are dearer to me than anyone else in the world, and I love you, with all my heart."
Cameron folded her tightly in his arms, his lips pressing against hers hungrily, with utter disregard for their public location or any possible witnesses. Elizabeth had no room amid the rapturous joy within her to care for such things in that moment, as she kissed him back with a passion she had never known before.
When their lips parted he did not release the rest of her, and his forehead leaned against hers and he let out a shaky laugh. "A short engagement. We should be married as soon as it is reasonable."
Elizabeth smiled at him in the dusk. "And how would you define reasonable, sir?"
Cameron brushed a kiss against her forehead, his hands stroking up and down her back. "A week?" he asked with a grin. "A day? An hour?" He looked into her eyes. "I would marry you this minute if I could." As his fingers traced her cheek lightly he whispered, "My dearest, beloved Elizabeth."
She closed her eyes, her face pressed against his shoulder. She was almost frightened by the feeling within her. It seemed too much to ask of Fate that she could be so perfectly and utterly loved by such a man.
Mere words can never do justice to true love scenes, and no language could capture the expressions of tenderness and devotion shared by two such people as Elizabeth and Cameron during the short walk back to their lodgings. But their faces told the tale eloquently enough, for not a passerby who happened to look upon them could be in doubt of their feelings, and even John could not fail to notice the way his sister's face shone as she came into the inn.
He had spoken to his friend on the subject of Elizabeth only once and that briefly. It had never occurred to him that Cameron would toy with any woman's affections, least of all the devoted sister of a friend. However, he had felt compelled for the sake of honor to deliver the traditional warning. Otherwise John left the situation alone. Elizabeth was more than capable of managing her own love affair, just as she managed everyone around her, by doing it so sweetly, so kindly and so well that no one could possibly raise an objection.
That evening, she retired to bed and John drew Cameron into the dining room and ordered two drinks. He was not prone to speeches, so he confined himself merely to raising his mug and looking at his friend, "You are the luckiest man on earth, brother."
Cameron grinned in return, and they saluted each other and drank in perfect companionship for a good hour before retiring for the night.
The next afternoon John and Elizabeth returned home with happy news for Kate as well as a long letter from her betrothed. Some coolness remained on the young lady's part towards her brother, which was understandable under the circumstances, though it is likely the report that the engagement might only be extended by another three months rather than entirely broken probably hastened her forgiveness better than any apology that could have been offered.
Within two days Cameron joined the family again, and brought even better news. Admiral O'Neill, having interested himself in the situation, had put Mr. Lorne in the way of some work which would help him regain his footing more quickly than had been expected. The young people could look to their wedding being held within six months, if all went smoothly.
The crisis being thus declared over, the second announcement, of Elizabeth's engagement to Captain Mitchell, was made. It did not produce great surprise, for no one in the family had been unaware of the attentions the gentleman had been paying to their oldest sister. But it did raise several questions which must be sorted out.
She was the principle caretaker of all four of her siblings though Kate would go to her own home soon. Charles had soothed his sister's heart by announcing that he intended to follow the plan that had been set forth by his late father and would be off to school in the fall, but he would need a place to come to during his vacations. Jennifer still required a home and a guardian, and Elizabeth knew John well enough to know that domesticity was never something he aspired to. He would make his home where ever she was, and not the other way around.
All this she said to Cameron, who acknowledged it and professed himself ready for any sacrifice necessary. He perfectly understood her obligations and would not consider parting Elizabeth from any of her family in any way, except, of course, for their honeymoon, where, he said, he intended to have all her attention for himself.
Elizabeth was comforted by his words but they did not solve the problem at hand. Cameron might be willing to move himself into her home rather than their finding one elsewhere. But the distance of the house from the coast, where Cameron and John and Evan's interests all were, troubled her. She consulted John and Kate and finally came to the sad conclusion that it would be best for them all to relocate themselves closer to the sea, possibly outside Portsmouth, where Kate might be near her lieutenant and he might remain close to his parents. Elizabeth was not overfond of the town, but proximity to her brother and future husband's sphere of employment would lessen the necessary separations. She felt certain she could count on Lady Sara's help and advice to find a suitable location for them all.
The older children all felt the wisdom and necessity of the move in spite of their sadness, but Jennifer rebelled outright for some time. Elizabeth was heartsore herself at the idea of leaving the house with its gardens and paths, all so dear to her. She and John had been children there; all her memories of her own mother resided in the place. Even John and Charles expressed sorrow at the idea of leaving, but John set himself the task of cheering Jennifer over the prospect, largely, it must be confessed, through bribery regarding what sort of new room she would have in their next house.
Finding a new home was not as troubling as the prospect of what to do with their own. Even Elizabeth's practicality balked at the prospect of selling the place outright. Thankfully, her friend Mrs. Fraiser arrived one afternoon not long after the engagement was announced to say that an acquaintance of her daughter's, Lady Laura Cadman, was looking to return to the area with her husband and seeking an appropriate house. Elizabeth was greatly relieved. The arrangements were soon made to suit everyone, and Elizabeth found herself thrown into the twin storms of packing an entire household and preparing, again, for her own wedding.
Fate had yet still one more complication to throw at them all. Some three weeks before the wedding date, John was warned by the Admiral that he was soon to be given new orders and sent back to sea. This was beneficial for Kate and Evan, as the lieutenant was more likely to gain fortune on the seas than on land, but it would require a separation of some four months at the least. Kate bore with the news as best she could, and given the maelstrom of preparations going on in the house, she did not lack for employment to occupy her mind.
Elizabeth desired that her brother be present for this wedding, as she firmly intended it to be her last one, though John pointed out that she had been certain her first nuptials would be her only and it was perhaps not wise to be so confident in her opinions after all she had experienced. Elizabeth delivered him a smack on the arm worthy of her ten-year old self.
The wedding date was moved up to the following week, that John and Evan could be present (Evan was standing up with Captain Mitchell, as John would have other duties to perform and Cameron had no other close friend nearby), and so that Elizabeth and her new husband could take a week for their wedding trip before having to return to see John off.
Cameron's father and mother exerted themselves with haste to attend their only child's wedding, and Elizabeth was greatly relieved that the warmth and kindness of the son was so clearly evident in the parents. They embraced her heartily, calling her "daughter" and blessing her for making their son so happy. Elizabeth would have been in a fair way to cry through the entire evening before the ceremony, had John not been there to rescue her with his teasing, and Cameron to whisk her away to walk their favorite path in the garden until she could calm herself.
The wedding itself was a quiet affair, as neither the bride nor the groom favored ostentation. Most of their friends in town turned out to see them depart the church, as this occasion seemed to mark the departure of the popular family from the region. The separation was not to be permanent, for after the advance of a good many years, when both John and Cameron had retired from service, the family would return to their home again, though of course this was not known as the eldest Sheppard daughter was driven away from the tiny stone church by her new husband, waving happily at the crowd.
The honeymoon week was not long enough to satisfy either of the newlyweds, but they returned at the appointed hour and were able to bid John goodbye. Elizabeth consoled herself that this voyage would not take her dear brother across any oceans, only along the coast of the Continent, and he would, God willing, be back with them in time for Christmas.
The move of the household to the new home outside of Portsmouth would have defeated even her powers of organization had Cameron not been at hand to bring discipline to the process. As it was, Elizabeth regarded the procession of wagons loaded with their possessions and felt rather like a gypsy.
In between the whirl of settling into new accommodations and receiving visitors, chief among them being the Admiral and Lady Sara, and sending Charles to school, there was only time for one last goodbye with their brother and brother-to-be before the ship sailed out of the harbor. Elizabeth suspected Kate retired to her room that night with a heavy heart and a pillow covered in tears, but the young lady's resolve bore up even better than she expected. This was partly due to her strong character, and partly because she had little time for wallowing. They were barely two months into the wait for the return and having only just felt themselves settled into the house when Elizabeth realized she was with child. Kate thus had her hands full of preparing for her wedding and tending to her sister's delicate condition.
Cameron had received sailing orders of his own, and came quite close to defying them rather than leave his wife at such a time. Of course he did not, and the voyage was a short one of only a matter of weeks, but when he returned, it was to find with delight that Elizabeth's pregnancy was far more noticeable than when he went away. That night in the privacy of their bed, his hand lay against the swell of her stomach tenderly while he whispered words to Elizabeth that would have made her fall in love with him all over again, had she ever been in the slightest danger of falling out of love with him in the first place.
John's reaction to the news of his becoming an uncle was delayed, for several letters were lost to a series of violent storms, and his first awareness of Elizabeth's condition did not arrive until he entered the new house and saw her. With a loud whoop, he swept her up in his arms, only to set her down again immediately upon Jennifer shrieking warningly. Elizabeth laughed, hugging her brother and explaining that Jennifer had appointed herself her little nephew or niece's protector already.
Captain Sheppard's voyage had been a success, and a delay of no more than four days occurred before the title of "Miss Sheppard" became Jennifer's alone. Lieutenant Lorne and his wife returned from their honeymoon only to remain at the house with her family for another month, suitable lodgings not having been found in the short time before the wedding. They were not to find anything to fit, however, before new orders came and John and Evan must depart again, along with Cameron, for another three months. They were not all back on shore until spring had remembered the world. By that point, Elizabeth was about to enter her confinement, and it was determined by the others (Elizabeth being given no say in the matter for once) that it would be preferable to have Kate nearby until Elizabeth was up from her bed once again.
Captain Mitchell had been understandably anxious about possibly missing the birth of his child, but Fate was kind enough to bring him to shore well in time. He was pacing the hallway restlessly when the babe's first cry was heard, and he nearly broke down the door in his anxiety to know if his wife was all right. Elizabeth fell asleep in her husband's arms almost as soon as he reached her, worn out from delivering him a fine son.
The boy was named after his uncle and one of his grandfathers, but the entire family quickly christened him "Jack," to the great delight of the Admiral, who often pretended not to know it to be a coincidence. John doted on his small namesake, providing the boy with toys enough for an entire orphanage, only barely outdoing, in Elizabeth's eyes, the baby's father in attempts to spoil the child before he was out of the cradle.
When Elizabeth's health was sufficiently recovered, the Lornes finally departed for their own small house, on a quiet street not too far from the Mitchells. Jennifer delighted in aiding her sister in setting up housekeeping, carrying messages back and forth between the two houses and tending to her little nephew, and John was greatly amused to be the first dinner guest his sister formally invited into her house. He observed to Elizabeth when he returned that clearly only two young people greatly in love could share so small a space and not be induced to murder one another.
One year to the day from John's first coming home, Elizabeth sat with her son in her arms, rocking him to sleep. Cameron came up beside her as he often did at this hour of the evening, settling on the low stool nearby to stare in silent awe at his wife and his son. He clasped her hand in his and pressed her fingers against his lips. Elizabeth smiled, glancing down at her child and thinking of the great changes a single year could bring.