Authors: Susannah Bamford
Reading Whitman in her room late into the night, Darcy felt the charge of the poet's words fill her with courage. The verse made her physical longing suddenly natural, tied to the elemental forces of nature and earth and universe. No wonder Claude had forbidden her this book. It placed a knowing finger on her pulse and applauded its secret, racing rhythm. The words hummed inside her brain as she went through the prescribed rituals of the house party with a heart suddenly given voice.
Three stormy days had kept everyone trapped inside. But then there came a morning when Darcy opened her eyes and saw clear sky, and the knowledge entered her brain plainly: this was the day she would see Tavish alone. She didn't know how they'd manage it. But they would.
It was early; her breakfast tray wouldn't arrive for two hours. Darcy flung back the bedclothes and dressed hurriedly, praying that Solange would not appear. She slipped through the cold halls, shivering, and made her way downstairs.
He was there, as she'd known he'd be, standing in front of the fireplace in the drawing room. When she walked into the room, he smiled.
“I think a walk would be best,” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
It was dreadfully cold; no one in their right mind would walk in such weather. The sun hadn't had time to warm the frost on the lawn or melt the ice on the trees. Darcy and Tavish went quickly across the grass, their footsteps crunching through a thin skin of ice, until they were out of sight of the house. Hidden by the folds of Darcy's cloak, they held gloved hands, then stripped off their gloves to feel each other's palms. When their fingers turned to ice, they put their gloves on again. When they could no longer bear not to feel each other's skin, they removed them.
When their pace slowed and Darcy caught her breath, she felt the minutes already press against her. There was so little time for them! And there were so many questions she wanted to ask.
“What is it?” Tavish asked, squeezing her hand. “Is it Claude? Darcy, I didn't mean to imply the other day that your husband is involved. I simply don't know. Butâmaybe I have no right to say thisâperhaps you should be careful. That's all.”
Darcy moved restlessly. “Don't speak of it now. There are too many other things to say. I don't want to talk about Claude, or even about my father. We can do that later. I want to know you, Tavish Finn. I've been thinking for days of so many things I want to ask you. I don't know where to begin.”
“I think we have about an hour before your reputation is ruined,” he said. “So begin at the beginning, and we'll talk as rapidly as we can. I want to know all about you as well, Darcy Snow Statton.”
She smiled. “But you have the advantageâyou are in my world. My life holds few surprisesâyou can look around you and see how I was raised. You've been in the house I grew up in. You could probably tell me what kind of dress I wore at my coming out party. But I know nothing about you, where you came from, how you came to be here. Are you the scoundrel you appear?” she asked mischievously.
“Oh, undoubtedly. Ah, Darcy. My life is a long tale, I'm afraid.”
She pressed his arm. “But I want to know it. Were you born in Ireland?”
“Yes. My mother had been living in England, but she returned to her folk when she was with child. But she had no husband, and Ireland is not easy for illegitimate children. When I was about two she'd had enough and returned to England to seek out my father and ask for help.”
“And? Did she find him?”
Tavish gave a sardonic laugh. “Oh, yes, he was easy to find. That wasn't the problem.”
“He was married,” Darcy guessed.
“Married, and a lord, with a large estate and a son and daughter. They'd met when she'd been in service at an estate he was visiting. He wasn't very happy to see my mother at first. But he did give her a job.” Tavish's eyes had a faraway expression. “My mother was hauntingly beautifulâshe could have married many times, even considering her shame. This man, my father, he wanted her again, you see. And my mother loved him, so she stayed. She became a companion for his great-aunt, which gave her some free time. At least he didn't make her a maid. And later, when I was older, I was sent to the stables. I was great friends with the groom, and back then I had no higher ambition than to follow in his footsteps.”
“Did you know about your father?” Darcy asked hesitantly.
“Soon enough. It doesn't take long, living on a country estate, to learn all its secrets. The other servants treated us differently; it didn't take a genius to see it. I knew by the time I was ten or so. My father took no notice of me, but I knew. And then â¦”
The pause was so long that Darcy wondered if he was planning to stop his tale. But she didn't prompt him. She waited.
“My father's legitimate son was kicked in the head by a horse one day. He died a week later without regaining consciousness. The family was destroyed. He was seventeen, the pride and joy of the family. Handsome, smart, high-spirited. We'd been friends, actually, though he was five years my senior. He made an effort to befriend me, and â¦ well, no matter. I too was crushed when he died, though I couldn't mourn with the family, of course. A month passed, and my father's wife went abroad to recover, taking my half sister. My father took to riding long hours. He came, he mounted his horse, and he never said a word to me. Yet I saw him looking. Then, one day, he spoke to me. And my life changed.”
“How did it change?”
“He trained me,” Tavish said expressionlessly, “to be a gentleman. I don't know if he planned to make me his heir or not. But I do think he needed to replace Tony. He sent me away to school, though I didn't want to go. He took over the training on holidays and vacations. He pushed me and prodded me and humiliated me until I stood the right way and spoke the right way and could eat the right way. And on long vacations, he sent me away to some impoverished family relative and paid them to continue my education. I barely saw my mother for six years. He had to send me away, I suppose, because things would be difficult for his wife and daughter. How would they treat me? They couldn't very well ignore my existence, now in my tailored clothes and my new accent.”
“It all sounds very awkward.”
Tavish laughed. “You sound like an Englishwoman. Awkward. That's putting it mildly.” He squeezed her hand again, so she'd know he was teasing. Then his voice grew serious once more. “I grew to be a gentleman, and I grew to wait for my father's love. I convinced myself that I had it, that it was something of which he could not speak. And I believed it. Slowly, I began to
like my father's son. My mother and I moved to a small house on the grounds. One day I was unexpectedly befriended by my half sister. We found we had something in common: we both feared our father.”
They stopped under a grove of trees. Without the faint rays of the sun, the wind invaded Darcy's furs and made her eyes tear. But Tavish didn't seem to notice.
“My father, in an act of sheer cruelty, forced my half sister into an advantageous marriage to a drunken brute that destroyed her spirit within a year. My father locked her in her room until she would agreeâshe was seventeen. I was furious with him, but it was âinappropriate' for me to express it, as I wasn't a true son. Something shifted for me then. But it wasn't until my mother told me she was going to have a child that I broke. I was shocked; my father had made it plain that he had gone on to other mistresses. Yet, one night, he had visited my mother. I had no idea. My mother had been unhappy for so long, and then when she told me she was with child, she was radiant. I suppose she thought this would bring her back to him. I'm afraid I took the news badly. I was horrified. We became estranged.”
Tavish laughed, and it was a bitter sound. “Estranged! I sound like a Englishman now. I was insufferable to her, awful, a prig. Our relations grew strained. And then one day she began to get pains. I ran to get my father. Her doctor was not available, and I begged him to send for the family doctor. He would not. He had made a promise to his wife, you see, not to use the family doctor for his mistress's pregnancy. His wife was afraid of exposure, I suppose. So I saddled a horse and rode to the next village, searching for any doctor at all. I brought one back, but it was too late. He was there for barely a half hour when she died. The child was stillborn. My mother was dead because of a gentleman's promise. And that was the day,” Tavish said quietly, “I ceased being a gentleman.”
“What happened then? What did you do?” Darcy whispered.
“I burst into the family dining roomâthey were all there, including my half sister and her husbandâand I broke the news of my mother's death. It was a terrible scene. My father threw me out. I stayed in the area long enough for the funeral and long enough to see my half sister one more time. I was wild, I told her she should leave her husband, that my father did not deserve her obedience. I'm afraid I called her a coward and said she would be destroyed as my mother had been. She too threw me out. After a time in London I came to America. The East Coast seemed too much like England, so I went West. I got a job protecting railroad workers as they laid track across Indian country, but I soon switched allegiances when I understood the terrible greed of the railroad men. I was involved with the Grange for a while, I played poker in mining towns and lived by my wits for a spell, and I was a Pinkerton detective chasing outlaws until I quitâwell, I did after they fired me. And then I settled down in Solace, California, after I won a share in a lumber mill. And there I found a home.”
“But when did you start working for the federal government?” Darcy asked, confused.
“Ah.” Tavish cleared his throat. “But that's a story for another time. Fll tell you everything someday.” His eyes glinted, and he turned her face to his. “Here I've told you my life story, and I'm knowing nothing about you,” he said, putting on a soft brogue and a raffish grin that made her smile. “Sure, what kind of gentleman could I be, with all my boasting?”
“Sure, you are no gentleman, Tavish Finn,” Darcy responded faintly, her lips already parting for his kiss. She had so many questions. But his mouth descended on hers, hard and hungry, and she forgot them in the pleasure of touching him again.
When they re-entered the house, they blundered onto Cora Van Cormandt and Maud Valentine. Significant looks were their reward. Darcy didn't care. It was just a walk. What married woman in New York society did not conduct a harmless flirtation? They would return to town, and it would be forgotten. No one but she and Tavish would know how profound their meeting was, how painful it was, even now, to trade pleasantries with the others and parry their drawling incredulity at an early-morning walk in such freezing temperatures. At least Claude had not been there to see.
But when he was there, did he notice? Claude seemed no different. He had always watched her carefully, he was always remote in public, he always left her to herself at house parties. He was still furious with her for dismissing him in the library, but he had not come to her to vent his anger. He was waiting, Darcy knew with a shivering certainty, for them to be at home. Three more days.
But that meant three more days with Tavish. What would happen when they returned to town, she could not begin to consider. Not yet. She was too busy feeling to think. She pushed aside everythingâher father, Claude, blackmail and possible scandal, her own desperate unhappiness, her growing fear of her husband. She would take her three days, and be damned.
Darcy saw the letter, forwarded from town, on her morning tray and quickly snatched it up before Solange could see and report back to Claude. At home, he always opened her mail and passed it on to her. Here he could not enforce the custom. It was from Columbine Nash, and it merely said she was sorry their visit had been interrupted, and that she hoped to see Darcy again soon. Darcy marveled at Columbine's tact. She would not call at the Stattons, though she knew as well as Darcy that eti~ quette demanded that she do so. By sending this note to Darcy, she was letting her know that friendship could be on her terms, and Claude would never have to know of it.
Thoughtfully, Darcy tapped the letter against the tray. Truth to tell, she was disturbed by Columbine's note. She had simply forgotten her existence for a time, and the note reminded her of the easy familiarity between Columbine and Tavish. On what terms, exactly, were Tavish and Columbine? Believing in Tavish's integrity, she hardly thought now that they were lovers. But they must have been at one time.
Darcy frowned. Jealousy was a new emotion for her, and she didn't like the feeling. But it was difficult not to envy Columbine's ease, her lightness, her wit. That her honeyed-blond beauty should be joined to such keen intelligence! Columbine had done so many things in her life, had been so active, and knew so much. Why would Tavish be interested in Darcy, whose most strenuous exertion was planning a dinner or what to wear to a ball?
Reaching for pen and paper, Darcy resolved to write a friendly note back to Columbine, saying she would call as soon as she returned to town. She had to face this feeling head on. Remembering Columbine's honest friendliness, Darcy knew that despite her jealousy she looked forward to their next visit.
And perhaps, Darcy thought with a sudden twist of mind that surprised her, she would need friends such as Columbine. Friends not bound by convention. Friends with the courage to stand by her should everyone else turn their backs.
There was a soft knock at her door, and Solange, who had been setting out her dress for the day, opened it. Claude walked in.
“How are you today, my dear?” He touched his cold lips to her forehead. Silently, Solange left the room to give them privacy.
“I'm fine, Claude.”
He tilted his head and looked at her. “Oh, but you look pale.”