When the sun was just beginning its descent across the fields, Ethan led his horse into the shelter beside Penny. Emma was not inside the cottage, so Ethan walked across the central room, then turned and looked around sharply.
The interior of the cottage should have been as decrepit as the exterior. Cobwebs should have hung from the rafters above him and a thick layer of dust should have covered two chairs and the table, as well as the floor. It was on Welland property, after all, and he’d not given any instruction as to its maintenance. In fact, he’d specifically ordered that the entire grove of trees was to be undisturbed. Judging by the condition of the arbor and the peeling exterior of the cottage, the steward had taken him at his literal word.
The interior of the cottage wasn’t neglected. In fact, it had been carefully and tastefully furnished. The two chairs were there in the far corner, the table covered with a clean linen cloth. A daybed sat in a spot of sunlight at the far end of the room, with a basket beside it full of yarns and a half-finished knit cap. A rug was spread in the open space between the day bed and the fireplace, and a rocking chair was angled so that it faced the daybed. Below the front window there was a bureau with a lamp on it, and in the far corner was a small shelf where a small collection of books waited. The rafters had been cleaned and were wound with a loose interweaving collection of fabrics, turning the open space below the roof into a vibrant, eye-catching pattern. In addition, the place was spotless. The floors shone, and the furniture gleamed. The linens on the daybed were fresh and the flowers on the table smelled sweetly.
Only one person could have engineered such a change.
Drawing a deep breath, Ethan stepped out of the front door and immediately located her. Her skirts were spread over the grass. She faced away from him, looking out to the Welland. Ethan knew she heard him, though she didn’t turn, so he walked up behind her until his shadow completely dwarfed her.
A very long minute passed before he sat down perpendicular to her back so that he could see her face if she deigned to look at him. Almost imperceptibly her back leaned to rest against his upraised knees, but then her mind caught the betrayal and she sat up stiffly, flushing abruptly as she turned her head to look at him.
He waited silently while she examined his face, cataloging the changes. If anything of his person remained intact, it was the shape of his face and the depths of his blue eyes. Little else of his younger person remained. Three years and countless hours in the sun had seasoned his skin. It was a deeper gold than before, and there were lines at his temples. His hair, previously a morass of golden-brown curls, was now cut evenly to a half-inch over his entire head. Instead of a smooth jaw, Ethan wore a beard of oaken brown, trimmed short and neat, from one ear to the other. His build, once fully muscled, had become lean and almost gaunt from turmoil with which she would hopefully remain unacquainted. He’d left her as a young man on the cusp of life; he returned as a man fully mature.
Emma had changed in small, barely perceptible ways. She was lovelier than she’d been as a vibrant girl, more alive than she’d been while overwhelmed by the pathos of her mother’s death. From their earlier confrontation, he knew she hadn’t grown even an inch, but her figure had matured and rounded, tempting in ways he hadn’t expected. She’d trimmed the black ringlets that had hung about her face and wore her hair under a dark red hat that Ethan wanted to toss into the grass. At Pipwell, she’d had a mint green cap covering her ebony locks and he’d had to resist the urge to order it off her head then, too. It was a point they’d doubtless clash over, if she’d taken to wearing the useless pieces of fabric. Her eyes, pale blue ones that some days seemed too large for her face, were framed by her usual long lashes, but her cheeks had filled out a tad, framing her eyes more attractively.
“It took you longer than I expected,” she finally said, her voice soft, as he remembered. Ethan was not deceived though. She was still angry. She deserved to be angry.
“Your father wanted to chat. And you’d just brought in the tea – we had to share it.” Ethan modulated his voice carefully.
Emma said nothing else, just sat and stared at him. Waiting.
Ethan wasn’t certain if she was waiting for an explanation or an argument. One he wasn’t prepared to give, the other might lead to a tantrum that would make it difficult for him to approach her again. So instead he spoke quietly of mundane details, calming bits of life. “I’m opening Welland Hall. I’ve already set my steward on the task of hiring staff. Mrs. Jefferson has agreed to come out of her retirement to preside as housekeeper again, at least long enough to get the house in shape and train a replacement. As soon as Mitchell heard I’d returned, he popped up in the gardens and was busily resurrecting them.” He glanced around them at the heavy trees and added, “I need to send the men up here to clean the grove and repair the cottage.”
“Why?” Emma straightened, her jaw tightening as she stared at him. “Why bother?”
Ethan’s heart thudded heavily in his chest as he struggled with the right thing to say. How to tell her that he’d lost his best friend when her mother had died, that he’d drifted from his true purpose in life without her as his anchor?
Of course he couldn’t confess all of the sins of the past, or his plans to repair the present and future. He couldn’t tell her that he’d said he’d loved her so that she’d agree to his proposal all those years ago. He couldn’t tell her that he still needed and wanted her as a sounding board, a friend, an affectionate companion. He couldn’t tell her that his determination to recover his birthright and his honor and his manhood was grounded in the realization that he’d lost it all when he left her side.
The new unwelcome proposition that he might wish to kiss her senseless was predictably a natural outcome of a year of celibacy and sobriety, as well as the expectation that she’d share his bed soon in Welland Hall.
“Why clean it up?” he returned curiously. “Because it’s important to you, Emma. I saw the inside, I know this place is important to you, even if you think to deny it.”
Emma didn’t deny it. She blinked. She looked away. She looked back at him and before he could even see it coming, slapped the back of her gloved hand against his jaw in righteous anger.
He lifted his hand to rub the sting, but she had already leapt to her feet and was striding around the outside of the cottage, almost at a run.
“Don’t bother,” he heard her say as she passed out of sight.
That was twice in one day she’d run away from him. Ethan stayed where he was and looked out at the view, hardly seeing it.
Emma still loved him.
* * *