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Wimbourne Chase, Hampshire
Early summer, 1830
In India, there was an ancient proverb: Pilgrims seldom come home saints.
Thomas Jellicoe stood as the proof. He had been a pilgrim in the wide, wicked world for so many years he had long ago lost his faith—misplaced on some dusty, less-traveled roadside—and he had all but forgotten how to find his wandering way home.
He could only stand before the ancient lodge gate like a supplicant, and hope he had finally come to the place where—no matter how long he had been gone, or what he had done—they would finally let him in.
“My God, Thomas! Is that you?”
Thomas shaded his eyes against the unfamiliar, dazzlingly clear English sunshine and hoped the man hailing him across the lawn of the walled courtyard was his older brother, James, Viscount Jeffrey, the owner of this ancient estate. The years had wrought so many changes, Thomas couldn’t be sure.
Nothing was familiar. Not the lush, verdant English countryside. Not the large, ancient manor house beyond the lodge gate. Not the tight, constricting English clothes he wore, not even the language he was trying to force out of his mouth.
“James.” His voice sounded rough and frayed, tattered around the edges, and he knew he must appear as disreputable and worn as he felt. What if his brother, his own flesh and blood, didn’t recognize him? It had been so long, he’d forgotten himself.
He could only stand on the locked side of the gate and hope that despite his rough demeanor, his brother would recognize him enough to gain him admission.
His brother the viscount did peer hard through the barred barrier of the gate before his face finally lightened in recognition. “Thomas. It is you. It’s been too long.” His brother’s voice was thick with emotion, and in another moment, the gates were unlocked and flung open, and Thomas found himself enveloped in a crushing, bruisingly heartfelt embrace. “You ought to have sent word you were coming. You ought— But no matter. Everyone is here.” James clapped him on the shoulder, and then drew back to survey him head to toe. “Look at you. God, but it’s good to have you back. Welcome home, Thomas. Welcome home.”
Was it home?
It ought to be good to be back in England. It had been too long. In India, the monsoon season would have started, bringing endless curtains of lukewarm, swampy rain and steaming brown mud. In Hampshire, the sun was shining in the glittering, cool air and every color was shocking in its sharp, crystalline brilliance. The English trees were a thousand different shades of deep, leafy green, and the sky shone a diamond bright blue.
But how could it be home when everything was so foreign and new?
“Good Lord.” James gestured to the crumpled saddlebag the gate porter passed to one of the footmen, while a stable hand led Thomas’s mount away toward the stable block. “Is that all your baggage? After all these years, you return with less than you took? I expected chests of rubies at the very least.”
“The rubies are to follow.” Thomas tried to answer with something approximating his usual wry humor. “I rode. From Liverpool. I was on my way to Downpark, but I stopped at an inn at Sixpenny Handley and heard your name mentioned.”
“Not in vain, I hope?” James joked. “Liverpool? What on earth were you doing there? I thought you were meant to be in India all these years? Never mind—what matters is you’re here, at last. Come in, come in.”
James kept a loose hold of Thomas’s arm as he pulled him across the lawn of the forecourt, as though, after so long an absence, he wasn’t prepared to let go. As if he wanted to make sure Thomas didn’t disappear for another fifteen-odd years before he made it into the safe confines of the house.
It was touching to find he had been missed. The tight weariness loosened its grip on his chest.
“We’ll go straight out.” Instead of ushering him into the house, James was leading him through an arched passageway in the wall that led to the open park beyond. “The whole family is out on the west lawn—all of them but William and his family—so it’s a good thing you didn’t go home to Downpark, for they’re all here, Father and Mother, and the others. We’re having a bit of a garden party. Strawberries and cream with the children. You’ve come just in time for Annabel’s christening.”
Thomas slowed before the archway. “Annabel?”
“My youngest, born while you were in transit, no doubt.” James smiled, his tone full of the patient warmth of a man happy in fatherhood. “There are rather a lot of them, my children. But you’ll know everyone else here.”
A group of people were gathering around a table set up on the lawn. Strangers still from this distance. Thomas put his hand against the warm brick of the wall, to steady himself and gain another small moment of preparation after so long. “But my dirt. From the road.”
“No matter.” James pulled him along anyway. “They’ll be ecstatic to see you, though we’ll have to make sure Mama is sitting down. It has been a long time.”
“Yes,” Thomas echoed, still not fathoming the passage of so much time. “I suppose it has.”
It hadn’t felt like fifteen years until he’d left Scotland and set foot upon English soil two days ago to find everything so unfamiliar and changed. Fifteen years of nomadic travel. Fifteen years of living as a man apart. Fifteen undeniably long, unforgettable years.
“God, you were a twig when you left, and look at you now. You’re taller than I. Come.” James smiled and threw an arm around his shoulders to steer him across the parterre, toward the group of people on the lawn. His family.
“Everyone, look who’s here,” James called out to the rest of the party. “The prodigal returns. Our Thomas has finally come home.”
Faces turned in surprise. Or perhaps shock. Voices raised in greeting, some familiar, some not. There was his father, an older, grayer version of the man who had sent Thomas off to seek his fortune with the East India Company, striding toward him. Others rose from chairs, astonishment written across their faces. His mother, with her hand pressed against her mouth, looking older than he would have thought. And his sister, impossibly grown-up.
Thomas tried to step forward to greet them. And staggered.
As though he had not yet had time to become accustomed to solid ground beneath his feet. As though he had debarked from the ship hours instead of days ago. His family would think him ill with some sort of jungle fever.
“Steady on, old man,” James murmured at his side.
Perhaps, after all those healthy years traversing the Hindu Kush, he had finally contracted a fever, if not in Calcutta or on the ship, then in Glasgow or Liverpool.
Because he could have sworn the young woman he saw at the far edge of the sweeping lawn was Catriona Rowan.
Catriona Rowan. Here, in Hampshire, England, at his older brother’s estate, when he had looked everywhere else in the world. In every village from Saharanpur to Delhi. And farther south in Agra, and a thousand villages along the Jumma and Ganges rivers to Calcutta. Then in Glasgow and Liverpool and another hundred villages and towns in between.
Perhaps she was a fever dream. Perhaps his weary mind was playing tricks on him now that he had finally resigned himself to the fruitlessness of his obsession. Now that he had grudgingly accepted his failure to find her. Now that he had at last given up and come home.
Thomas narrowed his eyes against the sharp northern sun, raised his hand to block the light glaring off the ornamental fountain, and looked again, determined to rid his brain of this useless, tormenting vision—her long, lithe body clad in gray, the pale, freckled skin, the sweep of fine hair escaping the confines of restrictive pins and bonnet to fly away in the sunlit breeze.
But his heart and mind slammed against each other, like storm waves crashing, until the roar of her name in his head was deafening. Catriona. Catriona. Catriona.
My God. Either he had finally gone mad, or it was she.
How fitting. How bloody ironic. He had searched the world over, when all he had needed to do was to come home. To a place he had never been before.
He told himself to move—to go to her, to haul her into his arms, to make sure she was not a hallucination, to touch her and hold on to her in reality, the way James was holding on to him now. But his body would not obey his mind. He was paralyzed.
He was bloody staggered.
Right there on the lush, green lawn of his brother’s exquisitely manicured estate, in the middle of a bloody summer garden party—so improbably, quintessentially English—cool, green, and orderly, all graciousness and peaceful ease. Nothing like the seemingly barren, dangerous mountain passes north of the Punjab. Nothing like the crowded, intrigue-riddled bazaars of Lahore. Nothing in these surroundings should make him feel such a disorderly, contradictory rush of numbness and pain—as though he were crawling out of his own grave.
“Thomas? I say, old man, are you all right?” James took a firmer grip of his arm.
He was not all right. He felt as if one of his high-bred mountain horses had kicked him hard in the chest, knocking him stupid.
His Cat. Alive and here, all along. Walking toward him, with children hanging from her arms. Waiting for him.
How could she have found him? It ought to have been impossible. He had told no one he was coming. He hadn’t even known it himself, until he had abandoned his search in Liverpool, and gotten on his horse and ridden south. He would have gone to the family seat at Downpark, but for the fact he’d chanced to overhear an ostler at a nearby inn mention his brother’s name.
Another staggering thought had him reaching for the stranglehold of his brutally tight English collar and cravat—children. Were they hers?
No. The children clutching her hands could not be her own. They were too old—the one on the right was at least four years of age. And there were too many. There had not been time enough for her to hatch such a brood. Please, God, they were only his own romping collection of nieces and nephews, his brother’s or sister’s children, whom he knew of only through his family’s constant letters. Their missals had been sent faithfully at regular intervals, though he had received them in great bunches but once or twice each year, and read them slowly, committing their words to memory before he had fed them one by one into the fire.
The children were shrieking their merry way into the arms of tolerant parents, amused aunties, and indulgent grandparents—his parents, his family—the ones he had traveled all these thousands of miles to see. The ones who were waiting patiently to greet him as he stood like a crazed man, staring at a ghost.
Because he was afraid to take his eyes off her, lest she waver and disappear like a mirage in the dusty glare of the high desert. But she did not dissolve into the crystalline air. She came on, walking steadily along the level grass, her head bent low to murmur encouragement to the awkward child clinging to her hand.
Impatient bodies interposed themselves between them, blocking his line of sight. He shifted to the right.
“Jack, lad! Come and meet your uncle Thomas.” James was still at his elbow, trying to subtly recall him to his duty, to the attention he owed his family. “I’ve told them what little we’ve known about you, gallivanting about far-off, exotic India.”
Small voices rose around him, clamoring for his attention, until he found himself being bowled into and patted on the back by grubby, admiring hands.
“Uncle Thomas? Is India as hot as they say?”
“You’re awfully brown, like a pirate,” complained a voice. “But you haven’t got a ring in your ear.”
“I don’t like him,” was the final decree from one suspicious moppet. “He doesn’t look like he has any presents.”
But Thomas ignored the voices. He had eyes only for Cat.
She still had not noticed him.
She stopped just beyond the gathered circle of people, waiting with polite disinterest from a distance as his family stirred and swarmed around him. Her eyes followed the children, keeping track as they congregated around him and then broke apart.
My God. Did she not recognize him?
He told himself it was only natural. Six months ago, before he left India, his own family would not have recognized him. “How long has she been here?”
“Beg your pardon?” James did not take his meaning. “I imagine everyone will stay at least a fortnight or so, though Father may have to return to London. We’ve plenty of room. No need to hurry away—”
“No. Her.” Thomas let James follow his gaze. He had lost her before. He would not take his eyes off her now.
“Oh, Miss Cates? I forgot, she will be a stranger to you. Steady on there, Thomas.” James’s voice held the first faint beginnings of a warning. “Miss Cates is our governess. She’s absolutely marvelous with the children. A wonder. They adore her.”
Of course they did. Children, and most people, not to mention any number of species of animals, could not help but adore her. They had an instinct for the truth—something he had lost first, before he had lost her.
But Miss Cates, James had said, not Rowan. That was less than the truth. It meant she was hiding. Clever, clever girl. Right here all along. He couldn’t have thought of any place better himself. Something that he would only allow to be relief welled inside his chest. “Did she ask for me?”
“Miss Cates?” James’s laugh was uneasy, and a little placating. He put a steadying hand to Thomas’s shoulder. “No, Thomas. Why on earth would she?”
A thousand and one reasons, but mostly just one. She was his.
“How long has she been here?”
James was frowning with more than concern now. “Not above a six-month, though Cassandra has been working for well over a year to steal her from Lady Grimoy, over at Oakley. Vanessa Grimoy was loath to give her up, though her youngest was already out. Why do you ask? Thomas?”
So she was a real, proper governess, not just pretending at it to find a place with his brother’s family. How had she managed to find him when he, a man long experienced in finding out secrets, had spent the better part of the past two years searching fruitlessly for her?
In his frozen state, he could not puzzle it out. But he could not stand there, rooted to the ground like a fakir in his roadside shrine, if he wanted the answer. “Introduce me.”
“To Miss Cates? Thomas, are you quite all right? Come, man, the family is waiting—”
“Introduce me.” His raw voice was nothing short of unconditional. Unmovable as the granite hills.
“All right, if you insist,” James muttered in a frustrated tone that said he didn’t know what else to do with his clearly lunatic brother. “Miss Cates,” he called to her, “may I introduce you to my brother, the Honorable Thomas Jellicoe? My brother is only just lately returned from abroad, from India. Just this moment, in fact. Thomas, Miss Cates.”
She looked up at James, the pale oval of her face showing nothing more than polite interest. But Thomas was sure. His body stirred painfully back to life. He had been half dead with grief, searching for her in vain. But if she were alive—so, too, must he be.
He closed the distance remaining between them as fast as his unsteady legs would allow, and stepped close, so he could satisfy himself it truly was his Cat, and then closer still, so he could smell the mingled scent of lavender and starch rising from her skin. So close, she was forced to change her focus from James and notice him.
At first, she only looked at the hand he extended, roughened by weather and work with horses, and still far too brown for an Englishman. And then her gaze slid to his wrist, to the single, beaten silver bracelet he still wore.
Yes. Her disbelieving gaze ricocheted up to his face, and her eyes darkened in shock. Remembrance and confusion raced across her skin like a hot shadow, and then fled, leaving her drained of color. Even her freckles blanched. She pulled away abruptly, and pressed her hand to her throat, stumbling a little sideways, as if her world were tilting off its upright, starched axis.
He reached out to right her. In India, she had smelled of jasmine and lemons, not lavender and starch. He would remind her of the jasmine.
“Miss Cates and I are acquainted.”
Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Essex