Nathan Appleby, clad in only his brocade robe and breeches, sat by the fire in the high-backed armchair of the sitting room. His newly-cleaned, still-damp hair curled about his forehead in the unruly wisps that Charlotte loved but of which he often despaired.
Winter’s darkness has long since overcome Shepzoy House, and with it had descended a quietude that made Nathan feel uneasy. He watched the flickering dance of the fire in the grate for a long moment before draining the dregs of cidered brandy from his mug, forcing away the hazy memories and nearly-deadly allure of his mushroom-induced hallucinations.
Instead, Nathan set aside his empty glass and put on his spectacles. He turned the knob on the oil lamp on the table beside him to better illuminate the leatherette folder that lay in his lap. Slowly, clinically, he read through the notes he’d made since returning to Somerset, assessing them as though they belonged to another.
Nathan pulled a clean sheet of paper from the bottom of the stack and laid it on top of the rest of his journal. He uncapped the bottle of ink on the side table and dipped his pen into it. Nathan Appleby, he scrawled upon the page, drawing a definitive line underneath the name, just as he used to do with all of his other patients. Beneath that, he began a list:
—32 year old man
—married, (2nd wife)
—1st wife died, childbirth
—trouble dealing with death of son
—expecting new child
He paused, chewing on his lip for a long moment before adding,
Nathan set aside his pen with a sigh and rubbed at the creases in his forehead. While his views about the plausibility of ghosts had been forever changed by his experiences of the last six months, it was now clear to Nathan that those supernatural events had not been the only reason for the madness that had consumed him. After all, he’d been haunted by guilt over Gabriel’s death for years before his return to Shepzoy.
And even though Nathan knew logically that he was not in his right mind at the time, he felt shame for and horror at all he’d said and done to his beloved wife as a result.
Poor Charlotte, he thought remorsefully. What I have put her through!
His mind’s eye replayed the moment where he’d fought her for the picture that had proven Gabriel’s ghostly existence, how the blood had blossomed on her lips after he’d hit her…and Nathan had to swallow back the bile that threatened to choke him. That even in his impaired state he could have scrupled to harm Charlotte—
—or the pain in her eyes when he’d said those horrible things meant to drive her away—
—or, oh God, how she’d offered to throw herself down the stairs because she believed he didn’t want their baby—
He startled and then looked up sharply, meeting the eyes of the object of his thoughts. “Sorry…” he gasped hoarsely, tears clogging his throat, “I’m sorry.”
Charlotte knelt down beside his chair and feathered her fingers through his hair, tucking a stray curl behind his ear. “Are you all right?” she asked quietly, nodding at the binder in his lap as she stroked the side of his face with her thumb.
“No, I’m not,” Nathan admitted on a sigh. “But I will be. For us. I swear it.”
Charlotte nodded once and then stood. Nathan’s eyes tracked the movement, basking in the vision of her. Her hair flowed loose in russet curls that draped across her shoulders and tumbled down her back. Her brown silk dressing gown fit more snugly over her ampler bosom and curved almost possessively across the slight swell of her belly. Just hours ago, he’d felt that selfsame material between his fingers and contemplated the reality of never seeing this sight again.
Nathan could barely suppress the shivers that threatened to return at the thought of just how close he’d come to death and how lucky he’d been to avoid it.
There by the grace of God or Providence…
“Come to bed,” Charlotte said, her hand sliding down Nathan’s shoulder, his arm, his wrist…until her fingers enclosed his.
“Are you sure?” Nathan asked with a frown of self-reproof. “I didn’t want to assume…”
“Come to bed, Nathan Appleby,” his wife repeated earnestly. “I’ve been without my husband for too long already.”
Since he desperately wanted the comfort of her touch, Nathan could do naught but agree. He brought their clasped hands to his lips and whispered a kiss across Charlotte’s knuckles. “All right.”
Nathan closed the folder and set it aside, tossing his spectacles next to it on the table as he stood and turned down the lamp.
Nathan had already shed his robe and slipped between the sheets by the time Charlotte finished her evening toilette. He watched, entranced, as she padded to the wardrobe. As she turned, Nathan’s eyes widened. The changes in Charlotte’s body that had been only hinted at from beneath her silk dressing gown were now fully on display: her breasts had grown from generous to voluptuous, the gown barely restraining their abundance; the swell of their child growing within her was more pronounced than he’d imagined; and her skin glowed fairly opalescent in the lamplight. To Nathan, she seemed almost unearthly in her beauty.
Charlotte stutter-stepped to a halt under her husband’s intense examination. “What?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder as if checking to see what else might have captured his attention.
“You…” he breathed in awe.
“Me?” Charlotte questioned softly. “What about me?”
“You look…” Nathan paused, momentarily at a loss for words, “…like some sort of Grecian goddess.”
“Oh.” she replied with a shy smile as colour filled her cheeks. “Which one?”
Nathan pursed his lips to hold back a smile as he tapped a finger against them in thought. “Demeter, I think,” he replied with a nod, his voice solemn but his eyes twinkling with mischief.
Charlotte crinkled up her nose as she lifted the covers to slip into the bed. “The goddess of the harvest?” She giggled. “You are a few months late for that one.”
Nathan held up a finger as he replied in a sanctimonious tone, “Ah, but she is the goddess of the harvest and of fertility. And you, my dear, have that in spades…”
“How very astute of you, Mr. Appleby,” Charlotte teased impishly.
“Why thank you, Mrs. Appleby,” Nathan replied, the smile he’d repressed now given free reign as their eyes met.
But Nathan’s mirth quickly faded under the weight of his guilt. “Oh, what I have missed!” he whispered as he reached out with one hand to reverently caress his wife’s stomach. “You have been through so much in these last months because of me…”
Charlotte’s breath caught at the shimmer of tears in her husband’s eyes and the remorse in his voice. “Nathan…” she said, her hand coming up to cup the side of his face. “Do not torture yourself.”
“How can I not?” he asked plaintively. “You deserve so much more than a broken man.”
Charlotte caressed Nathan’s cheek with her thumb. “What’s broken can be mended,” she whispered.
Nathan didn’t move away from Charlotte’s touch, but his eyes no longer looked at her, but rather, through her, beyond her. “Mr. Payne fancies you, Charlotte. Even at the height of my madness, I could see that. Marshfield Estate is much more prosperous than Shepzoy has ever been or could ever hope to be. And with his forward-thinking mentality, I’m sure it will continue to be so.”
His anguished gaze returned to his wife’s as he choked out, “Perhaps it would have been better if…”
“No!” Charlotte vehemently denied, turning to face him more fully as she shook him by the arms with both hands. “Don’t even think that!”
“But it’s true. He seems a good sort of man. He would have treated you both well, I am certain.”
“But he would not have been you,” Charlotte insisted with another shake to his shoulders. When Nathan appeared to be about to argue, she spoke over him before he could. “No. I mean it, Nathan. He may fancy me, but he does not love me. He does not understand me like you do, nor would he ever. You have encouraged my pursuits and my education when many others would have scoffed at them. You have always treated me as a partner; an equal, and I cherish that.”
“My dealings with Mr. Payne have shown me that would never have been the case with him. Despite his initial interest in and flattery of my photography, it was merely a curiousity to him, a whim to indulge and nothing more. He had no real interest in my mind, of that I can assure you. Besides, what honourable man tries to woo away another man’s wife?”
That confession startled Nathan from his melancholy. “Did he truly? I know I intimated such that day in the parlour, but I didn’t actually think he’d do it outright. Hitting a man when he’s down, that’s not exactly sporting, now is it?”
“Not at all,” Charlotte agreed. “Do you know he actually gifted me a pineapple?”
Nathan nodded with mock-solemnity. “Ah yes, the ‘woo her with a pineapple’ ploy. I should have seen that one coming.” He pulled Charlotte into his arms. “An offering to the fertility goddess, no doubt,” he murmured against her hair.
“Something like that,” she admitted with a laugh. “His attentions made me uneasy. However, Harriet Denning thought him a veritable knight in shining armour.”
Nathan pulled back, instead choosing to lace the fingers of his left hand through Charlotte’s right as he leaned against the headboard. “Someone should warn Denning of his daughter’s poor taste in men,” he tutted with a shake of his head.
Charlotte shoved her shoulder against her husband’s playfully. “She fancies you, too, you know…”
“Does she?” he asked with mild surprise. “Ah well, one out of two isn’t bad.”
Charlotte leaned her forehead against Nathan’s bare shoulder as she dissolved into laughter. “Oh, I have missed you, my very silly husband!”
Nathan pecked a kiss to the top of her head. “And I you, my very wonderful wife.”
Charlotte snuggled against his side, and Nathan slid his arm around her to pull her even closer. There they stayed, cocooned in their mutual comfort and companionable silence for several minutes before Nathan finally broke it. “I didn’t mean any of it, you know,” he confessed.
Looking up at him from her where her head rested against chest, Charlotte asked, “Any of what?”
“The things I said to you the day you left.”
“Then why did you say them?”
“To make you want to leave. I was convinced that Gabriel wouldn’t appear to me with you here, and I had to see him. I had to.”
“Oh, Nathan…” Charlotte’s eyes welled up with tears.
He reached over with his right hand and thumbed away the moisture hovering on her lower lashes. “I know it was wrong of me, but at the time I didn’t think I had any other choice. I’m so sorry for hurting you.”
“And you were right about me. Not about not wanting the baby,” he qualified. “Never that. But that I was afraid of being a father again. I can admit now that fear and guilt was a driving factor in my erratic behaviour. But I never stopped loving you or our child, Charlotte. Not once; not even for a moment.”
“Thank you,” she whispered brokenly as she hid her face against Nathan’s chest.
Nathan felt the warmth of her tears on his skin and soothed, “Shhh, shhh, shhh…Please don’t cry, my love,” as he stroked circles on her back.
Charlotte sniffled and then sat up in the circle of Nathan’s arms to dry her cheeks with the heels of her palms. “It’s okay. I’m okay. It’s just …” she explained with a wave toward her stomach.
“Ah…” Nathan nodded in understanding and tucked Charlotte’s head beneath his chin again.
“So, it worked then,” Charlotte said rather than asked.
“You said you saw Gabriel; that you spoke to him.”
Nathan’s eyes welled up with his own tears. “Yes.”
“Well,” he began haltingly, “it was after I had eaten some of the mushrooms that Gwen keeps in her medicine box.”
“I know,” he owned. “I know how dangerous it was. But nothing else had worked and I was desperate.”
He felt Charlotte’s movement as she nodded. “Go on,” she encouraged softly.
“I began hearing things, seeing things. It was the most curious feeling to literally not be able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Once the drug had fully taken hold, I started hearing Gabriel’s voice…as if he were standing right beside me, though I could not see him.”
“The voice told me he was going out to the lake to sail his boat and I raced outside to follow.”
Nathan was so focused on his memories that he barely noticed Charlotte’s hand as it stroked soothingly up and down his arm. He swallowed hard past the growing lump in his throat. “You know that I’ve often dreamt of Gabriel’s death, but I don’t think I ever told you that when it actually happened I wasn’t there.”
Charlotte shook her head and murmured, “No, you didn’t.”
“He’d asked me to come outside to play with him, you see. But I’d been in the middle of writing a thesis for the London Psychology board, so I told him it would have to wait until later. Unbeknownst to me or anyone else, he went out alone. It was only later, when I realised I hadn’t seen or heard him for a while, that I went searching. I found him—” Nathan choked on a sob and had to take several steadying breaths before he could continue, “—floating face down in the water, his boat bobbing merrily next to him. It was the single worst moment of my life.”
A hand flew to cover her mouth as Charlotte gasped. Then she looked up to meet his red-rimmed eyes and began petting his hair. “Oh, my poor, poor husband! I am so sorry…”
Nathan closed his eyes against the pain and let the tears that had been burning for release fall.
“For years I have tortured myself with that moment, imagining what must have happened, how frightened Gabriel must have been. But what I saw as a result of those mushrooms…was worse than any nightmare or fever dream could be.”
“Once I had stumbled my way outside, the sunlight disoriented me. I don’t know how long I stood there trying to get my bearings, but when I finally did…that’s when I saw him.”
“Gabriel was on the other side of the lake, at the end of the pier. He had just launched his boat into the water. I called out for him, but it was as if he couldn’t see or hear me; as if I were the ghost instead of him.”
“His boat had gotten away from him; sailed out of his reach. Moments later, I saw Gabriel with a long stick, leaning out over the water as he tried to retrieve it. And suddenly, I knew what was going to happen. I heard the splash even as I raced toward him. When he called out for me, his voice was so terrified…” Nathan stopped his narrative and rubbed at the space between his eyes. His breath hitched as he struggled to hold in the sobs that threatened to erupt from his chest.
“By the time I reached the edge of the lake, he was already floating face down. I ran into the water, desperate to save him like we did with Peter, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find him. He’d just…vanished.”
“Even though I’d seen him die in my dreams hundreds of times before, I felt right down to the marrow of my bones that this was different, that what I had just witnessed was Gabriel’s actual memories. This was how he’d died, then; crying out for me with his last breath before he drowned.”
“That is just your guilt talking…”
“No, it isn’t,” Nathan insisted. “I firmly believe that what I saw was the truth of what happened that day. But it’s all right; I’m finally beginning to come to terms with it.”
After several moments of being lost in his thoughts, Charlotte prompted her husband softly, “And then what happened? You said you saw Gabriel?”
Nathan nodded. “I staggered back to the house. The sharpness of the loss I’d just re-experienced was overwhelming to my senses. I collapsed in the doorway leading to the front hall, devastated and wishing for nothing more than for Death to release me from my suffering. And then she appeared.”
“The woman with the book of light. From out of nowhere, she appeared before me and raced up the front staircase. In my madness, I was convinced that she had somehow lured Gabriel to his death. I was incensed that she was in my house and calling out to my son. I charged after her and she led me to the baby’s room. But when I opened the door, she wasn’t there; Gabriel was.”
Charlotte gasped, “Oh!” and laid a hand over her heart.
“I was overjoyed to have finally found him. I’d told Gabriel that I’d been looking for him, but he said that he’d been hiding from me because he didn’t think I wanted to see him…” The thought still made Nathan choke up.
“Well, that certainly wasn’t true,” Charlotte soothed, stroking her husband’s cheek and catching his tears with her thumb.
Nathan shook his head, “Of course not, but I can understand why Gabriel might have thought so, what with the excitement over the new baby and all. He must have thought I’d forgotten about him.”
“Nothing could have been further from the truth.”
Nathan’s expression was penitent when he met Charlotte’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said again, knowing he was repeating himself but yet knew not what else to say to convey his contrition for everything he’d done to hurt her.
“It’s all right,” Charlotte admitted with a bittersweet smile. “Go on.”
“When I asked him if she was there with him, he told me that he was alone. Gabriel asked me to stay with him and care for him. When I asked him how I could possibly do that, he told me that I already knew how. And, God help me, I knew exactly what he wanted me to do, what he expected me to do.”
“No wonder you felt as if you had no choice,” Charlotte said with a sigh. “You believed you had failed him before and could not do so again.”
“Yes,” Nathan whispered brokenly. “I couldn’t bear the thought of him being alone like that.”
Charlotte pulled Nathan’s head forward and pillowed it upon her breast. “Of course you couldn’t. He is your son and you love him.”
“I didn’t want to leave you; I really, really didn’t,” he vowed, his hoarse voice shaking with the effort of speaking. “But I reasoned with myself that you could fall in love again and marry another man—a better man—whereas Gabriel only had me.”
Charlotte cradled her husband against her body, rocking slightly to and fro as one would to calm a child after a nightmare. Nathan’s arms wrapped around her as he curled into her embrace and broke into heart-wrenching sobs. She held him tight, letting him feel safe and protected as he released years of pent-up grief and guilt.
She waited until the worst of his trembling had subsided before she spoke. “There is no better man for me than you, Nathan Appleby,” Charlotte insisted, tightening her hold on him as his tears soaked through the silk of her nightgown, “no matter what you may try to tell yourself. There is only you for me. I will never love another.”
“Perhaps it would be better if you could…” he confessed, barely loud enough to be heard.
“No, it would not,” Charlotte replied emphatically. “So there will be no more talk of that, if you please.”
Nathan snorted lightly at her gumption and tilted his head up to give Charlotte a watery smile. “Yes, ma’am.”
Charlotte leaned down and bussed a kiss to the crown of his head and then rubbed her fingers along the worry lines on Nathan’s forehead as if to smooth them. “Tell me truly,” she began soberly, “I know that this morning you chose life with me and this baby rather than death to be with Gabriel…but have I just delayed the inevitable? Must I constantly be in dread of finding you beneath the blades of a plow or floating in the lake?”
Nathan sat up and shook his head emphatically. “No, you need not fear a reprise of what almost happened this morning. You, our baby, and this farm are my priorities now.”
“Yes, but for how long? How long until your guilt drives you to madness again?” Her voice was shrill with worry.
“Charlotte…please calm yourself. It won’t happen again, I assure you.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because…Gabriel doesn’t need me anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whilst we were inspecting the strange contraption that Gideon unearthed in the East Marsh, I saw him again.”
Charlotte’s eyes widened. “You did?”
Nathan nodded. “I felt Gabriel’s presence behind me and I turned to look for him. But this time he was with the woman with the book of light. He was holding her hand and smiling up at her. She nodded to me once as if in acknowledgement, and then they turned and walked away together.”
His smile was wistful. “He’s not alone anymore. He has someone to look after him now. I think—I think he’s gone…for good this time.”
Charlotte’s eyes watered as she sniffled quietly. “I meant what I said in the kitchen, you know. I really can’t live without you…”
Nathan cradled her face between his hands and murmured, “There will never be a need for you to do so.” Then, with a grin, he teased her, “I fear you will be stuck with me for the next fifty years. I will become so old and crotchety that you would soon wish it to be otherwise…”
Charlotte was still chuckling when he kissed her, soft at first, but then it morphed into something more urgent and passionate. Nathan wrapped his arms around his wife and leaned back against the bed, rolling them gently so she lay mostly on top of him. His hands roamed up and down her back and sides as their tongues and mouths met again and again. But before their lovemaking could progress much further, Nathan eased out of the kiss to rest his forehead against Charlotte’s.
“What?” Charlotte asked, her breath came in quick pants as they brushed against Nathan’s face. “Why have you stopped?”
“Perhaps…” he breathed heavily, “this is not the best idea right now.”
Charlotte sat up and propped her fists on either side of her waist and demanded, “Why ever not?”
Nathan looked down as his hand caressed the swell of her stomach. “I wouldn’t want to do anything to harm the child.”
She shook her head with fond exasperation. “Where did this sudden concern come from? This certainly wasn’t an issue a few weeks ago…”
“I wasn’t entirely in my right mind a few weeks ago,” Nathan admitted. “Besides, I know how difficult it was for you to conceive; I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize this pregnancy.”
Charlotte laid her hand atop her husband’s. “We are well beyond the most worrisome weeks. Our being intimate will do her no harm. Or are you afraid that when you are poking me—” Her hands darted out to tickle his ribs, “—that she might poke you back?”
Nathan batted at her hands until he was able to grab them and then rolled them over so he could pin her arms against the bed. “Certainly not!” he said, smothering his laughter in the curve of her neck. But when the rest of what Charlotte had said registered, he released her and sat up suddenly. “She?”
Even by lamplight, it was easy to see the blush tinting Charlotte’s cheeks. “Oh…well, um…” she hedged.
“Yes?” Nathan continued, now openly curious at his wife’s interesting reaction to his question.
“Well, Gwen thinks…” Charlotte stammered.
“Oh, I see…Gwen thinks…” he teased back.
Charlotte gave Nathan a quelling look and leaned up on her elbows. “Yes, Gwen thinks the baby is a girl.”
“Does she now? Why so?”
“Because the pendulum said so.”
“Pendulum?” he asked skeptically.
Charlotte sighed and put out a hand so Nathan could pull her up into a more comfortable sitting position. “She borrowed my wedding ring and tied it to a string and then held it over my belly. She said its movement indicated that the child is a girl.”
Nathan shook his head and smiled bemusedly. “That’s just an old wives’ tale, Charlotte. That sort of hedge-witchery has no scientific basis.”
“That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work,” Charlotte defended. “Haven’t we just learned that not everything can be explained scientifically?”
Nathan looked dubious. “Well, yes…of course, but this is not—”
Charlotte cut him off as she blurted out, “You said that Clarity’s potions wouldn’t work either, but they did for us…”
“What!?” Nathan gaped at her and then stared off to the side he searched his memories. At last, he deduced shrewdly, “Was it in the wine?”
“I never said it was wine,” Charlotte reminded him. “I said it was like wine.”
“Ah, I see. And I suppose that was more of Gwen’s doing?”
Charlotte nodded. “She knew how sad I was about not being able to give you a child and wanted to help. And you must admit that the timing is rather suspect if the potion truly had no effect.”
Nathan harrumphed but could not deny it. “Perhaps my mother did have a point after all.”
“Perhaps she did,” Charlotte agreed whilst wrinkling her nose up in a rather adorable manner that all but demanded that Nathan kiss it.
“And that also explains what Clarity said to me the night she was touching your womb: she was simply confirming that the potion had worked. How I wish I’d known that then! You have no idea how afraid I was for you.”
“If I had known how much worry it would cause you,” Charlotte acknowledged, “I would have told you about the baby sooner. I just didn’t want to get your hopes up until I was absolutely sure.”
Nathan slid his back up against the headboard and then gently tugged at Charlotte’s hand, turning and guiding her body so that she was nestled between his legs and her back leant against his front. He twined their fingers together across her stomach and rested his cheek on top of Charlotte’s head, just enjoying the closeness of her: the warmth of her body, the softness of her skin, the scent of her hair.
“Nathan?” Charlotte said after a while.
“Yes?” he murmured.
“I was wondering,” she continued hesitantly. “The woman with the book of light…what did she look like?”
His surprise at her question was evident in the tone of his voice. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, she was about Gwen’s height,” he replied after a moment, “but had chestnut brown hair. It was not overly short, but certainly not as long as yours. She wore it loose about her shoulders. I was never able to determine her eye colour, but her skin was fair. She was built a bit lanky…sort of like me,” he mused with a quirk of his lips, “and I would estimate her to be about your age.”
“And how was she dressed?” Charlotte persisted.
“Oh, her mode of dress was very curious,” Nathan explained. “She wore men’s work boots, yet also a skirt so short that it would have revealed her knees had she not been wearing woolen hose.”
Focused on his recollection as he was, Nathan did not notice how Charlotte’s body stiffened against his. “Based on the shape of her figure, she could not possibly have been wearing a corset, which was also rather shocking. But what stood out to me the most was—”
“The scarlet-coloured wool coat?” Charlotte finished for him, turning around in his arms to meet his eyes, which were wide with astonishment.
“How did you…?” he stammered incoherently.
“Because I saw her, too.”
Nathan’s mouth opened and closed for a moment before he remembered how to speak. “When? Where?”
“This morning. Mr. Payne had come to pay me a visit at the vicarage and I had decided that, cold eyes or no, I would rather be here with you than to suffer more of his attentions. I had made it all the way to the workers’ cottages before he caught me up. After a time, he was able to persuade me that the best course of action was to give you another day alone; that I could always return to you tomorrow if I was still inclined to do so. I had just turned to walk back up the lane when someone called out to me.”
“She spoke to you?” Nathan gasped, nonplussed.
Charlotte nodded. “She knew my name, Nathan, just like you said she knew yours.”
He shook his head in amazement. “What else did she say?”
“She warned me that you were going to kill yourself.”
Nathan sucked in a sharp breath. “So that’s why you showed up when you did.”
“Yes.” Charlotte’s eyes were suspiciously wet as she babbled, “If she hadn’t been there…if she hadn’t warned me…”
Nathan grasped her lightly by the arms and reassured her. “But she was there, and she did warn you. You saved me, Charlotte. You saved me from myself.”
Charlotte wrapped her arms around his torso and laid her head against his chest, just to listen to the comforting rhythm of his heartbeat. “I came so close to losing you.”
“I know,” he admitted. “But it’s all over now.”
That specific turn of phrase brought to mind something similar that Reverend Denning had said just that afternoon, and it made Charlotte wonder aloud, “I wonder if it was hers.”
“That strange machine,” Charlotte clarified.
When Nathan looked at her askance, she explained, “Well, you said yourself that she was dressed most peculiarly. And her ‘book of light’ that you described…how it spoke to you and the photographs moved within it. That is certainly technology that does not currently exist in our world. Much like that carriage Gideon and the others dug up.”
“Do you think that’s what it was?”
“Well, it had wheels—albeit the likes of which we’ve never seen—and it was enclosed, much like a Barouche Box. Why wouldn’t it be some method of conveyance? Think about it, Nathan. Didn’t you say you saw lights racing toward you whilst you were on that part of the lane?”
“Yes, but horses could never have pulled a carriage that fast without overturning it.”
“Well, if her book had pictures that could move on their own, why could her carriage not also?”
“Are you suggesting that she belonged to a different time?”
“To be honest, I don’t know what I’m suggesting, Nathan. I was merely thinking aloud.”
Despite her best intentions, Charlotte could not stifle a yawn.
“Ah, now see? I have kept you up too late with all this talk. I should go. You need your rest.”
Nathan made to extricate himself from the bed, but Charlotte was having none of it. She wrapped her arms around his neck and vowed, “If you dare leave this bed, Nathan Appleby, I swear that you will awaken with half your beard shaved off.”
He raised his eyebrows incredulously at her outrageous threat. “You would suffer your husband to look like a fool?”
She lifted her chin as if in challenge. “If he chose to act like one, then yes, I would.”
Nathan studied Charlotte’s churlish look and the stubborn set of her mouth and then shrugged, deciding that a tactical retreat was wise. “Very well.” He slid down the bed until his head rested on the pillow and then reached over to turn down the lamp.
“Smart man,” Charlotte praised as she cuddled up next to him in the dark.
“Or at least a well-trained one.”
“Yes, or that,” Charlotte agreed soberly, but Nathan could feel her body shaking with silent laughter.
“Minx,” he teased.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“I wouldn’t dare to presume.”
Nathan trailed his hand absently up and down Charlotte’s bare shoulder as he tried to quiet his mind enough to rest. Yet, he could not stem the churning of his turbulent thoughts. He exhaled in a long, weary sigh. Oh, how he wished he could sleep!
“What is it?” Charlotte asked tenderly as she reached up to smooth the hair at the nape of Nathan’s neck.
“Oh, everything and nothing. I have much for which to make amends and many people to whom I must make them. I confess, I know not where to begin.”
“But you have already begun. After all, recognising the problem is half the battle.”
Nathan’s lips twitched in spite of himself. “That’s clever advice. Where ever did you hear it?”
“From this handsome psychologist I know,” she stage-whispered, as if imparting a great secret.
“I see,” Nathan replied sagely. He paused and then asked, “Is he bigger than me?”
Charlotte chuckled and then slid her hand down Nathan’s bare chest to rest over the front of his breeches. As if she were checking the ripeness of fruit, she gently squeezed. “Sometimes…” she flirted.
Nathan couldn’t hold back his groan of pleasure. As her ministrations continued, he struggled to keep his tone light as he accused, “Are you trying to distract me?”
“Perhaps,” she admitted as she unbuttoned the front of his breeches and slipped her fingers inside. “Is it working?”
Nathan swallowed hard. “Perhaps,” he gasped with a voice much less steady than hers. “But I thought we agreed—”
His voice dissolved into a strangled moan as she wrapped her hand around him and gave him a proper stroke. “No, you agreed,” she corrected him with a twist of her wrist and a squeeze that left Nathan panting and writhing beneath her. “I was never consulted in the matter, and, as you can see, my opinion differs greatly from yours.”
“Charlotte…” Nathan rumbled in warning.
“Yes, my dearest husband?” she asked innocently, and then added the torment of grazing his earlobe with her teeth.
It was the work of a moment for Nathan to spring into action, rolling them over and trapping Charlotte beneath him as his hand slid the silk of her nightgown up her leg and his lips suckled at the join of her neck. “You are the worst sort of temptress,” he mumbled against the softness her skin.
“I am what you made me,” she stated matter-of-factly and then sucked in a breath of anticipation as his fingers traced a meandering path up the inside of her thigh. “And therefore I demand that you have your wicked way with me immediately, like the rogue that you are.”
A chuckle of amusement burbled out of Nathan and he held Charlotte close, momentarily overcome with the love he felt for this woman. “Your wish is my command,” he replied fondly, and proceeded to do just that.