by Kathleen Braden
The carriage jerked and swayed as the horses climbed the hill. Mrs. Halstad leaned forward to push the curtain from the window, but she was on the wrong side of the coach to see the house. Rain fell in a fine mist, as it had all morning, on the lush green fields and scattered clusters of trees that stretched for miles on the gently rolling hills.
Mr. Layton sat opposite her, but closer to the other side of the carriage. "The view is better from this side. We're almost to the lane. Would you care to look?"
Mrs. Halsted looked down at her clasped hands and shook her head.
Her husband's family home would glower down at her from the top of the next rise, curtains drawn, the door shut as tight as a preacher's mouth.
"Thank you for..." She clasped her hands together and turned away as if to look out the window again, but she'd let the curtain fall. She'd meant to say "For your kindness," but the words stuck in her throat.
She pulled her fur collar closer around her neck as she felt the carriage turn onto the long lane that led to her husband's estate. If she'd looked outside, she knew she'd see the branches of the trees stretch across the rutted lane to entwine with the other bare branches overhead.
Her little adventure was over before she'd even taken the first step. She'd stood with her bags, ready to step into the coach bound for Boston, when Mr. Layton's voice boomed across the courtyard of the inn where she'd stayed the night. It wasn't entirely respectable of her, but what was one small transgression in the face of a much larger one?
"I say, Mrs. Halstad, are you quite sure?" Mr. Layton had called out.
That was all it had taken for her resolve to melt. She'd turned to her husband's young, handsome secretary. Their eyes met, and she was sure for an instant that he knew what she planned, and maybe even why, but she'd blinked and the moment was over.
She wasn't a dithering woman, but she feigned it for the other passengers, the coachman, and most of all Mr. Layton.
"Oh dear. Maybe not," she'd said.
The coachman grumbled. "But she inquired about the coach to--"
"Kindly hand down her bags," Mr. Layton said. He'd stepped in with that air of quiet authority.
Across the courtyard, her husband's horses had snorted clouds of mist in the chilled morning air and stomped their hooves. One shook its head, rattling the metal bits of the reins, as if scolding her for her foolishness. Even though the calendar said it was spring, frosted grass crunched under her feet as she neared her husband's coach. His coachman patted the flanks of the horses, kindly ignoring her as she climbed into the familiar black carriage.
He'd taken care of everything, retrieved her bags, erased every suspicion that she'd meant to leave, and salvaged her reputation before she could harm it. He'd been so charmingly inoffensive, as usual, offering small talk as her bags were transferred to her husband's coach. She'd sat quietly inside, hands clasped, and stared off into the distance, much as she did now.
The heat of his legs seeped through her petticoats. She longed to extend her leg just a bit so that her skirt might brush against his trousers.
"Of course you don't want to see. You know what your home looks like," Mr. Layton said.
"Home." She laughed, but it came out bitter, and her throat tightened. She bowed her head and swallowed hard against the lump sitting there.
Mr. Layton unfolded a lap blanket and draped it over her knees. "I've come to think of it so."
Pulled back from the brink of disaster, she only now realized what a scandal it would have been if she'd gone to Boston and somehow found him, somehow made him understand why she'd followed him. "How will I explain..."
"You visited your sister, and when you tried to return, you almost boarded the wrong coach. It's as simple as that. No need to explain. And if questions are raised, I will take care of everything." Mr. Layton's smile was gentle, reassuring. "You didn't know that I was out of town and that your husband had sent his coach for me. Surely if you had, you would have waited at your sister's instead of going to the inn and trying to find passage home. The fault is mine. I should have corresponded with you. I will tell your husband that."
"I knew that you were away." She'd meant to leave before he returned. She couldn't face another day of wanting to see him so much that her heart might break. It was silly, really, as if she were still a young girl, infatuated with a stranger she'd met once at a ball and couldn't stop daydreaming about. It wasn't as if they spoke often, even when he was invited to dine with them. But when they met by accident in the library or on the stairs he always made her smile and she would be content for hours. Until he'd come to work for her husband, she hadn't even realized how unhappy she'd become. "I thought that you'd be gone longer."
"I came back as soon as I could."
His calm, gray eyes met hers again. He licked his bottom lip then switched sides of the carriage so that he sat next to her. No part of his body touched her, yet his heat rolled over her again, this time in an enveloping embrace like sunlight through the parlor window on a summer day. Her husband's secretary took her gloved hand and gently turned it over. She stared at the creases in the kid leather, as if like a palm reader she could see her future.
"Did you spend the night at the inn too?" she asked. Had he really only been a few doors down from her all through the night? Had he been unable to sleep on an unfamiliar pillow as she had?
"Mrs. Halsted." He exhaled her name like murmuring a prayer.
Her lips trembled.
His forefinger rolled the pearl button at her wrist.
Each breath drawn in made her lightheaded and her heart drumming against her corset as if she'd been dancing too fast. Warmth rose in her cheeks.
He slid the hoop over the button, exposing her wrist to the chilly morning air. He lifted her hand as he bowed over it. Not once did his gaze flick away as heated lips pressed to her skin. Her pulse pounded against the gentle pressure. The warmth seemed to slide up her arm and under her dress with indecent familiarity, but she wanted that, and more, so much more from this young man with his calm gray eyes. She wanted him to press those lips to the nape of her neck, to feel his touch on her bare knee.
The coach lurched. She'd felt that sway too many times to ignore the warning. They were almost to the end of the lane, almost at her husband's house. Mr. Layton must have known what it meant too, because he moved back to the seat facing her.
"The doctors say that he doesn’t have long to live," Mr. Layton said. "He sent me to Boston to quarrel with them, as if that could change their diagnosis. Until he goes to god, it would be best, for all of us, if we avoided a scandal."
She pulled back the curtain. They were almost to the end of the lane. The trees were as bare as she expected, but their thinner limbs were swollen. In weeks, the first buds would appear. She looked down at her gloved hand and was surprised to see he'd buttoned her wrist. The warmth of his lips still lingered on her skin. She leaned back and exhaled slowly. Her winter would end too.