Authors: Cheryl Bolen
Sally moved to Georgette's bedside and kissed her forehead. "Good night, love."
Georgette's arms came around Sally. "Good night, Mama."
Stirred by the girl's response, Sally lifted her tearful, smiling face to George. He took her hand, and they left the chamber together and went downstairs where they took up their usual place before the fire in the drawing room.
"I'm rather tired tonight," he said, stifling a yawn. "Lambing season can be exhausting. I hope I can manage a quick game of piquet."
Sally easily won the game. Her husband was, indeed, fatigued. And no wonder. He was gone long hours every day, and when he wasn't in the fields, he was ensconced in his library pouring over farming journals. Sally decided this was a good fatigue. She smiled to herself. Now George was ready for bed at the same time he would have been embarking on a night's activities back in Bath.
"Come, dearest husband, I think you have an appointment with your bed."
Chuckling, he got to his feet and directed a mock scowl at her. "Only if you do
insist on tidying the drawing room before we leave. I believe you're trying to deprive our servants of their livelihood."
"Whatever you say," Sally said as she slipped her arm through his and followed him up the stairs. When they reached the door to her newly decorated chambers, he stopped and unexpectedly pressed his lips to her cheek. It was the first time he had ever done so.
The very air in her lungs swooped. She attempted to gather her composure as she gently put her hand on his arm and wistfully looked up at him. "Good night, George."
He stroked her hair. "Good night, my lady."
Then he started toward his own room.
Not daring to watch him, she hurried into her room, closed the door and fell back against it, her heart beating erratically.
* * *
A broad-brimmed hat protecting her face from the bright spring sunshine, Sally happily puttered in her new garden. Not a day went by that she did not pluck out unwanted weeds and water her fledgling plants. A pity it was too soon to see the fruits—or vegetables—of her labor. Day after day she toiled away, and still nary a leaf had sprouted.
Some two weeks earlier, Mr. Willingham had appropriated a pair of laborers to remove the ornamental flowers and replant summer vegetables in their place. The interim was exceedingly frustrating. More than once she had lamented the loss of her cutting garden. She did adore lovely flowers. But until their fortunes were reversed—and she had every reason to believe they would be—she meant to direct her efforts to reducing the greengrocer's bills. Later, she would restore the flower gardens.
Even upon regaining the flower gardens, though, Sally was far too parsimonious to ever again rely on a greengrocer if she could help it. Not when Hornsby was so rich in land. Growing up on a small parcel of land in the village of Haddington, Sally had yearned for a wealth of land. She had vowed that if she ever possessed vast amounts of land she would personally oversee gardens of every sort.
She set down her watering can and smiled. Never in her wildest dreams had she thought to one day be mistress at Hornsby, her favorite place on all the earth.
She heard the pounding hooves of a swiftly moving horse and turned to behold her husband riding toward her. He wore no hat, and his hair was flecked golden in the sunlight. Only rarely now did she ever see him during the day. He eagerly worked side by side with Mr. Willingham, overseeing the estates, and Sally could barely contain her joy over his transformation.
The pleasure he had derived from the horse races and the cockfights paled beside the joy he received from Hornsby. He bubbled with enthusiasm over improvements at the estate, and was rejuvenated by being around those whose goals coincided with his own. Just riding for hour upon hour over his lands filled him with a deep satisfaction, one unobtainable anywhere else. Hornsby was as much a part of him as Georgette or Sam. His past and his future intertwined in Hornsby's fate. A fate he might now be able to control.
She watched as he dismounted and came toward her, his crooked smile causing his eyes to squint. "Will it be Lady Sedgewick's peas and cabbage tonight?" His glance scanned the neat rows of humus.
She put hands to hips and directed a mock scowl at him. "You know it's too early, you beast."
"Are you finished with whatever it is you do here each day?"
"Then I propose we ride over the estate. You've seen only a fraction of the place, you know."
Her gaze flicked to the single horse. "I didn't know. I know very little about Hornsby, actually, though I vow to rectify that deficiency."
He looked at her with amusement in his eyes. "I am suitably impressed, my lady. Already you have learned the name of every ancestor who peers down at us from portraits on the second-floor gallery. An impressive accomplishment."
"I could not have done it had you not been able to enlighten me. I confess, I feared you would not be able to name them all. I thought I would have to rely on Felicity, since she's the eldest."
"I was completely surprised that I
know them. I have no recollection of having acquired such knowledge."
"It was not something you consciously did, as I did."
He laughed. "Certainly not."
She came toward him. "I would be most pleased to have you show me the estate."
"Since I haven't procured you a mount yet, I thought we could both ride on Thunder, that is, if you don't object."
Her heart fluttered. Nothing would give her more pleasure than being
close to George, to feel his arms circling her. Well, actually there was one thing that would be even better . . . "I don't object at all. I'm not a particularly adept horsewoman."
"That's because you were raised in a village. I'll wager you didn't even own a horse." He gave her a leg up.
"We didn't, actually. The first time I ever rode was here at Hornsby when I was twelve, and I was far too embarrassed to tell Glee I had no idea how to ride." She looked up at him and brushed away a stray lock of moist hair from her brow.
Once she was seated on the bay, he placed the reins in her hands, then hopped up to sit behind her.
She relaxed against him, spooning her back into his chest as his arms came around her and they began to ride. Because nature had modeled her after her tall, lanky father, Sally had never before felt either feminine or helpless, but at this moment—cradled against George's muscular body—she felt both.
The sun warming them, a gentle breeze riding with them, they rode past the orchards, past the lake and the folly, and came to the rolling hills, where herds of sheep grazed. "It's lambing season," he said, pride in his voice. "Willingham says it will be the best yet."
In the westernmost pasture Willingham and a dozen or so men gathered in several pockets assisting in the birth of lambs. George rode to where Willingham and another man were tending a birthing ewe, and he and Sally dismounted.
Willingham squatted before the ewe, his sleeves rolled up. His dark eyes flashed when he gazed up at Sally, then he stood to address her. "Forgive me for not taking your hand, my lady. My hands, I fear, are not clean."
Sally, far more interested in the newborn lamb than in Mr. Willingham, only briefly met his gaze. "When was this lamb born?" she asked, her glance flitting back to the newborn.
"Not more than ten minutes ago."
"He looks so very different without a coat."
Mr. Willingham chuckled. "It's actually a she, and this time next year you'd not recognize her."
George greeted the other young man, who was near his own age. "Good day, John. I should like to present you to my wife." George turned to Sally. "My dear, I've known John all my life. His father worked for my father, and his grandfather for my grandfather, and so on and so on. We played together as children."
"How do you do, John?" Sally said, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
"I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, milady."
"Tell me, are you married?" she asked.
"Aye," he said, a twinkle in his amber eyes.
"And have you been blessed with children?" she asked.
He chuckled. "Six bonny lasses and one lad, who's now two."
"The age of our Sam," Sally said, smiling up at her husband. "I do wish your wife would allow your boy to visit with our son. The poor boy is seldom around other lads. I daresay he'd be decidedly thrilled to make the acquaintance of another lad. Now, our Georgette has always had the companionship of her cousin Joy, who's just a year younger than she, though I know she would love to have your daughters for her playmates, too. Have you a daughter the age of Georgette?"
His sparkling eyes meeting George's, John laughed out loud. "Me first daughter's nine. We had another daughter every year thereafter until six was born. The lad's our last."
"Then all your children must come up to the manor house," she said.
He grinned at George, then back at her. "They would be honored."
"Shearing season's but six weeks away," George told Sally. "We'll be very busy then."
"Do you think I can come to watch the shearing?" Sally asked. "I'd love to see it."
Willingham smiled at her. "If Lord Sedgewick would allow, we could use an extra hand. There are never enough hands to go around."
She glanced at her husband.
George nodded. "I can't recall another Lady Sedgewick being interested in participating, but the present Lady Sedgewick would, no doubt, be a great deal of help."
Sally was uncertain if her husband had complimented her or not. For sure, she could not fathom the gracious Diana wrestling with the uncooperative beasts. A pity Sally could not be more like Diana. "Though I'm ignorant of farming practices, I should be interested in learning all I can."
George's eyes twinkled as he spoke to the steward. "Lady Sedgewick's an adept learner."
Mr. Willingham smiled. "She was, after all, at the top of her class at Miss Worth's School for Young Ladies."
Sally sighed. "I vow, I shall never hear the end of that! I'm exceedingly embarrassed."
"Being intelligent is something to be proud of, my lady," Mr. Willingham said.
She was even more embarrassed now. Mr. Willingham seemed to do that to her. In fact, other than Mr. Higginbottom, no other man had ever been so aware of her. Especially not the man she had married. She felt uncomfortable. "Tell me, Mr. Willingham, how many lambs do we have now?" she asked.
"Last count, forty-two. I expect a hundred or so."
She smiled up at her husband. "This is so exciting!"
"Especially when one considers five years ago the herd was down to less than a hundred," he said.
"And now?" she asked, looking up at George.
"Five hundred and growing. Should come to about five hundred and fifty by this time next week."
"Then I should say you—and Mr. Willingham—have done a most admirable job."
"I'm afraid my only contribution was in selecting Willingham," George said.
"Pray, don't listen to him," Mr. Willingham said. "His lordship is far too modest. He's one of the most knowledgeable landowners in England. You've seen his library, have you not?"
Her husband's library bulged with well-worn books and journals on farming and animal husbandry. "Mr. Willingham," said Sally, "you have confirmed my own opinions about my husband."
* * *
George set a hand to her waist. "Should you like to see the cornfields?"
"I would, indeed."
They remounted and rode across the pastures for another twenty minutes before they came to colorfully gridded land where a variety of crops grew in alternating fields. Closest to them were rows of tall, green cornstalks whose elongated leaves rippled in the breeze.
"We soon shall have our first opportunity to use the reaper on the corn," George said. "After that, it will be used on the rye crop." He waved an arm toward a square of brown farmland some distance off to the northeast. "Thank you for having more sense than I—and for paying for the reaper."
"What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine. I fared far better in the marriage bargain than you."
"I disagree." He put his mouth near her ear. "Are you hungry?"
"There's food in the saddlebags. I thought we could ride back to the folly and have a makeshift picnic."
It had been years since she had been to the folly. "Oh, George, that sounds wonderful!"
George had always thought the marble folly of formal Greek style completely incongruous in the woodsy rural setting. It certainly clashed with Hornsby's Tudor manor house. Nevertheless, he preferred its setting over anywhere else in the kingdom. From the folly, he could view the entire lake and the wood surrounding it as well as the little hump-backed wooden bridge that crossed it on the south end. A beautiful setting.
Just last week he had taken a respite there, but left after a mere twenty moments, feeling bereft. It was a place to share, and he wanted to share it with Sally. Not that they were as close as he and Diana had been, but he had come to admit that he was as close to Sally as he was with any other living soul. Closer actually. For their every hope and dream was intrinsically tied up in each other, and it was Sally—and only Sally—who loved his children as he did. And it was Sally who had brought him back to Hornsby, the only place where he ever felt complete.
Beneath the folly's domed roof, he unpacked the cold mutton, berries that had been picked only the day before, and a loaf of fresh bread. He laid the fare on a marble bench. Each of them sat on the bench on either side of the food and silently began to eat. It was as if words would spoil the serenity. He watched her as she gazed at the lake, and without words, he knew she appreciated the setting as much as he did.
When they finished eating, she gazed up at him, wonder on her slim face. "You know, George, I don't believe there can be a lovelier place on earth than this."
Her words did not surprise him. He had come to realize Sally was, in many ways, his other half. He swallowed. He could have stopped his spreading smile as easily as he could have stopped the sun from shining. It had been more than two years since he had known such happiness. This feeling of complete contentment wasn't just his pride in Hornsby, it was so much more. It was the sun and the fairness of the day. And it was having someone to share it all with. Until now he had not realized how important it was to have another person to link his life to.