Previous chapters: Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Five / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven / Chapter Eight / Chapter Nine / Chapter Ten
Clara made her way to the stable in the crisp, early morning air. She found the practice of sitting and resting most of the day stifling after so many years of teaching. Long ago, she, too, had lived a life of leisure. At first, this house party was a welcome respite that offered her time to relax and rest. However, Clara grew impatient to return to her everyday life. She had often mourned her separation from Stephen but had never been the sort to sit and bemoan that she had chosen a life of work instead.
“Miss Lumley!” Priya’s voice called from a few feet away, followed by the sound of rapid footsteps.
Clara turned, eager to see her new friend, and startled when she noticed Stephen. It ought not to have surprised her. As they approached, Clara noted that she did not feel the unease she had at their other encounters. Her conversation with Stephen the other evening cleared many misapprehensions.
“Good morning, Lord Clifford and Miss Priya.” Clara gave them a pretty curtsy in her borrowed riding habit. Priya had located one as well.
“You must teach me how to do that!” Priya said enthusiastically. “And do not worry about calling me Miss. I am only Priya.” She shrugged at the lacy collar before nearly tripping over the excess fabric of her gown.
“Then you must call me Clara.”
“Stephen was taking me to the stables,” Priya chattered happily. “Would you like to join us?”
“Oh, no, thank you,” Clara said at the same time that Stephen spoke.
“Yes, please do.”
Clara blushed but looked at him with confusion.
“You are already dressed for riding, and I remember how you like it. I imagine you have not had many more opportunities to ride in the last ten years than I have,” he said gently.
“That is correct,” Clara agreed.
“Then, pray, do not let our presence take the joy out of something you love so much.” Stephen’s eyes no longer held the harsh glint they usually had when they looked at her.
“Stephen has told me all about English horses,” Priya said, seemingly oblivious to the unspoken conversation around her.
“Well, the best way to a horse’s heart is by offering a treat,” Clara said. “I only brought one apple. We should go to the kitchen—”
“Ah, we have already been there.” Stephen held up a basket of apples. “If we are to ride, we need to begin.” He offered an arm to Priya, who giggled and took the basket from him before sliding her arm through his. Then, he offered his other arm to Clara.
This time, when she allowed her hand to slide over the fabric of his coat, she did not resist touching him the way she had when he escorted her to dinner. Underneath his new exterior as an earl and the experiences in India, he seemed just as familiar to her as he was all those years ago. She repressed a sigh at the memory. It was not precisely longing that now filled her. It was something closer to contentment. They were no longer enemies and could perhaps be friends.
The threesome reached the stable. While a boy spoke with Clara and readied her horse, she saw Stephen introduce Priya to the magnificent animals. She oohed and ahhed at them but seemed sufficiently timid about their large teeth and height.
“Let me just brush this one,” she said. “You go and ride with Clara.”
It took another minute or two of encouragement from his sister before Stephen approached Clara.
“It seems my sister is insistent that I enjoy a ride with an accomplished horsewoman before giving my lesson. Would you care to join me?”
“I could hardly be called accomplished any longer,” Clara said.
“Neither can I. We will be perfectly matched then.” He stepped a little closer. “I have treated you dreadfully, and this is the least I can do for you. You do not have to speak to me if you do not want to. However, you should not ride alone, and I thought my company might be preferable to a groom’s.”
Clara’s breath stilled. Did he remember that he had said nearly those exact words to her when they first met? He gave no sign that he recalled the beginning of their acquaintance. Surely he was not as sentimental as she was. Still, she could not find her voice. She merely nodded and attempted to give a slight smile.
Silently, Stephen led her horse out to the field where the mounting block stood. “Allow me,” he murmured as she stepped near it and before the groom could assist her.
Silently, his hands slipped to her hips and lifted her on top of the animal. He held the reins as she settled herself, then placed them into her hands. Next, he strode over to his horse and gracefully mounted. Time in India and age had not destroyed his athleticism. He nudged the horse forward with a glance over his shoulder toward Clara and a wink at his sister.
“Go on!” Priya urged Clara, jolting her into action.
Despite her years out of the saddle, it felt natural enough. Soon, she thought she had a decent understanding of the mare beneath her and could direct it accordingly. Unfortunately, she could hardly say the same about the man who rode ahead of her.
She pushed the thoughts aside and focused only on the feel of the horse and the wind on her face. Yes, this is what she needed today — exercise and exhilaration. Before them stretched a flat expanse, Clara called out to Stephen, “Race you!”
He nodded and grinned in reply. It was all Clara needed to urge her horse forward. It was not the same speed she had accomplished years ago. She was far too out of practice. Thankfully, Stephen was similarly wise. Still, their horses ran neck and neck for a moment. She dared to peek at him, and her eyes collided with his. Her focus lost, she unconsciously slowed her horse, just to realize that Stephen had done the same. Wordlessly, he urged his animal to a tree, dismounted, and tied off the reins. Next, he did the same to Clara’s mare before holding his arms out in front of her. They locked eyes, and she understood his unspoken request. Dismounting, she landed in his arms, allowing hers to link around his neck as he slowly brought her to the ground. Her hands slid down his strong shoulders and arms while his remained at her waist. He rested his forehead against hers, making her lashes flutter, and her breath leave her.
“One last moment of bliss, to replace the years of pain,” he whispered to her.
“I—I do not understand.”
“We must say goodbye again…and just when we found each other once more.”
Clara’s shoulders drooped, and she sighed. She had never hoped for a second chance with Stephen. Even after seeing him again, it never registered to her to have hope for such a thing. “You must marry.”
“I do it for you,” he said. “To keep the school.”
“What about Priya and your other sisters?”
“I do not think I would have the strength to do it for them, but I cannot offer you a better future.”
“Will you not let me decide what I want?” Clara asked. “Perhaps I would happily live with you without a shilling to our name.”
Stephen’s arms tightened around her waist. “And what of your sisters? Say you will have me this way, and we can leave for Scotland tonight.”
Clara hesitated. “Oh, how I want to.”
Stephen’s body tensed, then sagged in what Clara presumed was despair. “But you won’t.”
“Can I think about it for a few days? This is all so new…can you really mean it? Mere days ago, you hated the very thought of me.”
“I was angry, Clara, but I never hated you. What of you? Did you not loathe the man who condemned you to this life?”
Clara’s brow furrowed. Had she? “I was unhappy, but I had learned that I should not place my happiness in another person.” She paused before whispering the fear that touched her heart. “Perhaps too much has happened; maybe we have changed too much to rely on a love from so long ago.”
“Did you ever stop loving me?” Stephen asked. “I never stopped loving you, which made me all the angrier.”
“No, never,” Clara reassured him.
“I did not love you for your looks or youthful bloom. I loved your character and spirit.”
“I fear that is what has altered even more than how time has affected my features.”
“Am I so different?”
“In some ways, very much so!” She laughed that he could not perceive it. “In other ways, perhaps not.”
“Only perhaps?” he teased.
“I can hardly tell.” She drew a deep breath. “I cannot think straight in your arms, only it seems reckless to run away together after all these years of waiting.”
“Exactly! We have waited long enough,” he pressed. “I want no other wife but you.”
He kissed her temple, causing her to sigh contentedly. How often had she desired to hear those very words?
“I will court you,” he whispered against her skin. “Daily rides and conversation. You will see that we have not changed in essence. It has only been circumstance that has imposed on us.”
“I will happily consent to that. Allow us time to know each other again, then we may do things properly after this house party.”
Stephen took a step back, and Clara feared that he would be upset at her suggestion. Instead of reacting in anger, he raised her hand to his lips. “I see this means very much to you and is full of sense. It is not what I desire, but I know you are not rejecting me.”
Clara smiled in relief. They had both learned from their youthful and reckless ways. “No, I am not rejecting you. I am only asking for time.”
“For you, I will wait forever.” He kissed her hand again.
“I very much pray that it is not forever.”
“To know that you share my wishes and love me is enough,” Stephen said before enveloping her in his arms for a tender embrace. Then, after several minutes of her head resting over his heart, he let her go. “We should return to Priya.”
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