Authors: Frankie Robertson
WITH HEART TO HEAR
Castle Rock Publishing
Also by FRANKIE ROBERTSON:
For Benita, who likes fairy-tales.
WITH HEART TO HEAR
She hadn’t lied to her father—not exactly.
The carriage wheels crunched over the rough road as Elise reminded herself that she had dutifully called upon her cousin Susan and her husband William, Lord Crandall, just as she had promised. They’d been somewhat surprised when she’d told them her father had no objections to her camping alone in order to pursue her nature studies, but she hadn’t lied to them either. She’d merely omitted the detail that her father remained ignorant of that part of her plans. When he’d assumed that her tent was for the purpose of providing a respite from Cumbria’s interminable drizzle during her day outings, she had not disabused him of that notion.
William had grumbled that no good would come of such laxity on her father’s part, that a man had an obligation to put down the foolish notions of the women for whom he was responsible. Fortunately, Lord Crandall’s gout kept him from venturing very far from his library to exercise his protective male prerogative. In any event, Elise had little care for his good opinion.
Susan fussed that no respectable woman would sleep in the field like a Gypsy. What kind of reputation would she have? What respectable man would marry her, after such outrageous behavior?
“My dear, at eight and twenty, I am essentially ‘on the shelf,’ as they used to say.” Elise had smiled, not troubled by the thought.
“It is long past time you let go of your childhood fancies, Elise,” Susan said. “You must embrace the real world, as I have done. You only give grief and misery to yourself and those who love you when you resist and run from your responsibilities.”
Elise expected such words from her cousin, but they stung, nevertheless. The days when Susan had shared her wild longings and dreams were long past. While Elise’s childhood fancies had grown into a scientific curiosity about the flora and fauna of the natural world, Susan had risen to the demands of the ton’s social whirl. Elise had cultivated herbs and drawn “her brambles,” as her father called them, while Susan had accepted the need for an advantageous marriage and had made one. She had embraced the real world. As Elise had done.
Elise had exchanged her fantasies of exploring the world for the attainable pleasure of learning the intricacies of Britain’s flora. It had not been a great sacrifice. The natural world of England was both orderly and riotous. An oak was no less interesting than a banyan, despite its familiarity, and a shrew was as vicious as a tiger, for its size. But such things no longer held any interest for Susan.
It came as no surprise to Elise that the friend who had shared her childhood games and youthful dreams had transformed into a compassionate near-stranger. So why did she grieve as for a death?
“Is the ‘real world’ you embrace a warm one, Susan?” Elise shook her head. “To me, your world is only a shadow of the real one. I don’t want to live in it.”
“You live in it whether you wish to or not, Elise. And camping alone is neither acceptable nor safe. Tramp about all you like during the day, but sleep here in the house.”
“I will lose too much time traveling back and forth, and certain things may only be observed very early or very late in the day. Don’t worry so. I’ll be on Lord Crandall’s land, very nearly in sight of the house, clearly under his protection. Surely, I have little to fear on your husband’s property.”
Susan had abandoned safety as an argument and continued to cluck about the impropriety of Elise’s plans, but in the end she subsided without taking any action to impede her cousin.
On the morning of Elise’s departure, Susan made one last sally. “If word of your outrageous behavior gets out, no proper family will receive you.”
“Then we shall have to keep my outrageous behavior to ourselves, shan’t we?”
The incline pressed Elise back into the squabs as Jeffrey, the driver, urged the horses to pull the carriage up yet another hill. She had promised to return in five days. She had wanted a week, but Susan had already sent out invitations for a dinner party to be held six days hence. Elise had five days of peaceful solitude, and she would make the most of it. She hushed the yearning that whispered solitude was not what she
wanted. In her secret heart, she yearned for a friend and a lover who understood and shared her desires, someone who hungered for her alone. Alas, it did her no good to long for what she couldn’t have. Better to focus on what was within her grasp, and what she had was nearly a week to herself to enjoy her art and her studies. Half an hour from her cousin’s house, and already she felt the time running out.
They passed fields surrounded by low stone walls, and the sturdy folk at work there straightened and stared as the carriage rolled by, as if they seldom saw traffic on this road.
Which is likely the case
, Elise thought, bracing herself as the carriage jounced over another rough spot. The fields and tenant farms gave way to Longwool sheep in pastures bounded by hedgerows, which, in turn, passed away to land lying fallow. As the carriage pulled up next to an empty, rolling meadow, green smells of lavender, and heather, and wild rose poured through the window, along with the smell of sweaty horse and damp leather.
“How’s this, Miss?” Jeffrey asked. The coachman swung down from the seat.
The meadow was wide and beautiful, like a thousand other English meadows, and not far from Lord Crandall’s manor house, just as she had promised Susan. Not at all what she wanted.
Well, she had five days without others’ wishes to pull at her, and she meant to have things her way. “No, I don’t like it here. Drive on a bit farther, please.” The words came out too small, and Jeffrey continued on back to the boot. Disgusted with her timidity, Elise leaned out the window. “Jeffrey!”
“Drive on. I don’t want to stop here.” Her voice came out strong and certain this time. She sounded more like herself.
“Aye, Miss.” Jeffrey shrugged his resignation.
Elise directed Jeffrey down a side track, which overgrowth quickly narrowed. The trees lining the sides of the rutted, little-used way hung low and untrimmed, scraping the roof of the carriage and forcing Jeffrey, on the high seat in front, to bend low. The carriage bounced over the rough track. Elise clutched the cushions to steady herself. Eventually the road opened up again, but it remained difficult, requiring Jeffrey to slow for the sake of the horses. They drove on a good distance before Elise called out to pull up before an ancient-looking stone bridge. The land was rocky and uncultivated, falling away on the left to a deep cleft that the stream had cut. On the right, beyond the waterway, meadow grass and wildflowers blanketed a low hill that rose to meet the forest.
This site was certainly not what her father had in mind, nor what she had promised Susan, but it was exactly what
wanted. Something about the land called to her. The wild solitude of the place made Elise sure she would find something quite unexpected to add to her catalogue of sketches. Some flora or fauna heretofore neglected by the Royal Society awaited her here, and she would discover it. Perhaps then her father would respect her interest in the natural world. She’d studied the maps. This spot was the edge of Lord Crandall’s holdings. There was nothing for miles beyond this place but neglected forest. She was, however, still within William’s lands, so her lie was only a small, white one.
Elise allowed Jeffrey to assist her in establishing her camp. At last, with all in readiness and her supplies neatly stowed, the driver took his leave. The steady crunch of the carriage wheels whispered away to gradual silence.
Quiet. Elise stood still and listened. The blessed quiet filled with sound as her presence was accepted. Birds, insects, and wind combined their voices, contributing to the quiet that was not silent, unmarred by the harsh sounds of the city or the clattering of the railway that had brought her north from London. Then she became aware of time passing and hurried to make use of what remained of the day’s light.
With her art supplies tucked in the huge pockets of her smock and an oilcloth pillow under her arm, Elise approached the cleft cut by the stream. The clear water ran ten feet across and perhaps two feet deep beneath the bridge, but the steep margins of the stream gave testament to how high the water could rise when the rains came.
, along with the yellow of a few lingering
, spotted the banks.
, tiny and delicate as violet snowflakes, clustered in the crevices of the rocks. She loved the tenacious, surging life in plants. Even in the city, grass grew between the pavers. Persistent green shoots always returned, even after the harshest winter.
Elise took out her paper and pencils, seated herself on the pillow, and soon became absorbed in capturing every detail.
A sudden hush alerted her to an intruder.
Elise froze, as did all around her. Her pulse pounded with alarm. Her chosen isolation now loomed dangerous and foolish. Why had she camped so far from help? Were there Gypsies in the area? Vagabonds? Long seconds ticked by, marked by the rapid beat of her heart. All her senses strained to detect danger. She heard nothing, and nothing moved but the grass swaying in the gentle breeze.
The silence passed. The birds resumed their songs, and the small creatures rustled under the bracken for their suppers again. Elise laughed aloud at her overreaction. No doubt, a hawk had passed overhead. She wiped her fear-dampened palms on her smock and bent again to her work.
Some while later, a stiffness in her neck made Elise aware that she was drawing with her nose nearly on the paper and that dusk pressed close. Her stomach growled, protesting long neglect. Content with her afternoon’s work, Elise gathered her equipment and returned to her tent. She ate a cold supper by the light of her lantern and then fell asleep listening to the croaks, squeaks, and flutters of the night creatures around her.
“Come to me,” a low voice rumbled softly in her ear.
A warm shadow moved in the dark beside her. She should have been afraid, but instinctively Elise turned toward the heat. Her hand met the hard muscle of a man’s chest and traced the corded ridges of his broad shoulder. She felt a tremor beneath her touch, and then his strong arms gathered her in.
“Yes, love. Come to me.” Firm lips seared her own, then nibbled across her cheek. He nipped and sucked at her earlobe.
A frisson of excitement zinged through her. The rushing sound of his breath sped her pulse as prickles of awareness danced over her skin. She wanted—something. She’d never lain with a man, never had a man take “liberties,” but her body still wanted his touch, to feel his hands and mouth on her everywhere.
He chuckled. Then, as if he’d heard her unspoken hunger, his fingers trailed lightly down her lawn nightgown until they rested on her breast. Without thought, she pushed against his palm. Her nipple hardened. He toyed with it, tracing its circumference, tweaking it gently, teasing it till she wanted to beg–for what, she knew not.
His mouth replaced his hand and his tongue laved the peak of her breast through the fine fabric. The sharp pleasure of erotic sensation shot through her, drawing a groan from her, and her throaty cry sounded like nothing she’d ever heard come from her mouth. Elise didn’t care. The only thought in her mind was:
His hand found its way down to the mound between her legs. A surge of delight pulsed through her as he pressed his fingers to her. She pressed back. A part of her was shocked at her wanton behavior, but another part whispered,
It’s only a dream
“So eager.” He increased the pressure and a sensual wave washed over her, swamping her senses.
“Please!” She wasn’t quite sure what she was asking for, but she needed it like she needed water or air.
“Not yet, my dove.” He caressed her cheek. Warm lips brushed her own as if in promise. “Come to me.” There was longing in his voice. Then he was gone.
She awoke sweaty and trembling, roused by the first pinking of daylight on the canvas of her tent. What had come over her? Though she was more familiar with stamen and pistil, she hadn’t lived to eight and twenty without learning what went on between men and women. She’d wondered what such things would feel like, but never had she experienced such a vivid and unsettling dream.