The Obedient Bride Part 16
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"We must find some salve for your bruises when we get back to Lord Farraday's, Theo," Arabella said. "I truly am sorry to see you hurt, you know. But I am happy that Sir John Charlton must look a great worse. I really am."
"Thank you, puss," Theodore said. "I a.s.sure you he does. Now, Fran, set your foot on my hands and I shall help you into the saddle."
"You two may ride on ahead," Lord Astor said. "I am going to try to find a shorter way back with Arabella across the fields. She is as light as a feather, but our combined loads will be rather hard on this poor horse." Frances, having quite recovered from the vapors and having even put her handkerchief away in a pocket, rode away after Theodore along the roadway back to Lord Farraday's estate.
"Do you feel quite well enough to ride, Theodore?" Frances asked. "If you were to fall from your horse, I would not know what to do to revive you. And Lord Astor is not following us."
"I don't think I am about to take a tumble on account of a bruised cheek and a cut lip," Theodore said. "In fact, I am quite happy to suffer them, Fran, knowing that that scoundrel has been more or less fairly dealt with."
"It really was quite splendidly brave of you to go into that house and confront him," Frances said. "I could have died, Theo. What would I have done if he had killed you?"
"Fallen comfortably back into the vapors for a time, I imagine," he said. "I don't know what you would have done afterward. You tell me, Fran."
"I would have worn black for the rest of my life," she declared pa.s.sionately. "I would never have left it off, Theo. I would never have forgotten how brave you were and how you sacrificed your life for my honor. And I would never have let anyone else forget it, either."
"You need your eyes for the road, Fran," he said. "This is not the time for tears. Would you really have grieved for me, though? What about all your grand admirers in town?"
"Oh, mere dandies, all," she said, bravely sniffing back her tears. "I have not met a real man since I went there, Theo. Except his lords.h.i.+p, and he is married to Bella."
"And I am a real man?" he asked.
"Well, of course you are, Theo," she said. "I have never been in any doubt about that. Not since I was twelve years old and you rescued me from the bull."
"Which was in a quite different field from you and held back by a perfectly stout fence," he said.
"Yes, but he was angry, Theo," she said. "And you know that Papa himself said that when bulls are angry they can run through a fence just as if it were not there."
"I think I had better take you home and marry you, Fran," he said.
"Oh, will you, Theo?" she said. "Please?"
"This summer," he said. "I'll talk to Astor later today. What were you doing with that scoundrel, anyway?"
"He lured me away," she said. "He kidnapped me. He told me that Bella had gone on ahead of us with Mr. Hubbard and that I would be needed to chaperone her."
"You really do need looking after," he said. "Bella would not do anything that cork-brained. I say, Fran, if I were to get down off this horse and lift you down from yours, would you let me kiss you? I badly want to, but I won't risk it without asking because last time you smacked my face and it is feeling sore enough without that."
"Oh, I would not strike you, Theo," Frances said. "How could you think I would, when you have just been so courageous and when we are betrothed? Oh, do be careful. I am quite heavy, you know, and I would not wish you to hurt yourself further. Oh, Theo!"
She was down off the horse almost before the last words were out of her mouth, and being very thoroughly kissed in a most shockingly public part of the roadway.
"Don't cry, Fran," he murmured after a long while, kissing the tears from her eyelashes. "It was not that bad, was it?"
"Oh, Theo," she said, definitely not obeying the first command of her newly betrothed, "I was just thinking of Bella and what a great sacrifice she made, marrying his lords.h.i.+p so that I would be free to wed you. Dear, dear, Bella! I am so happy for her that all has turned out well. I could not feel so good about loving you if she were unhappy. Truly I couldn't. But I do love you so, Theo. And how very foolish I have been."
"No, you have not," he said. "I knew that you loved me, Fran. But I wished you to know it too. And now you do, you see. Give me another kiss quickly before someone comes along this road and has an apoplexy."
Frances obeyed her intended husband's second command.
Arabella was perched awkwardly on the horse's back in front of her husband. She had no choice but to lean sideways against his chest. But she did not feel any great reluctance to do so. After a few moments she rested her head against his shoulder. They rode in silence for several minutes, across a pasture, past a marsh, through some trees.
The horse slowed its stepa"almost of its own volition, it seemed. And Arabella raised her head without ever planning to do so. Lord Astor kissed her slowly, lingeringly, allowing the horse to pick its own slow way through the trees.
The horse had stopped walking altogether by the time he lifted his head and sat looking down at Arabella as she snuggled her head against his shoulder again.
"Arabella," he said, "words are so very inadequate. I have done you a terrible wrong. And the worst of it is that I did not even admit it to myself until very recently. I thought it my right to retain my freedom even after vowing to both you and G.o.d that I would keep myself only for you. I thought it my right to wrong you and to feel angry with you for feeling hurt. I have treated you as a possession, not as a person at all. If I get down from this horse and beg your pardon on my knees, will you ever be able to forgive me?"
"Yes," she said, turning her face in to his neck. "You are already forgiven. And you need not get down."
"But I have hurt you," he said. "You will never be able to trust me again, Arabella. Our marriage will always be marred by the memory of its beginning. You will never be able to forget."
"I don't think I want to," Arabella said. "I have realized something about life, my lord. Everything that happens has a purpose, I think. It is how we grow, perhaps. We cannot grow on just the pleasant things. I think I know both you and myself better for what I have suffered in the last weeks. And I cannot think that is a bad thing."
"But does our marriage have a chance?" he asked. "Can we start again, Arabella, as I suggested yesterday? Can we become friends?"
"I think so," she said. "I think our marriage perhaps has a better chance now than it had a month ago. At that time I thought you perfect and I was terrified of you. It is hard to love someone who is not quite human. But now I know that you are human, and I do not feel inadequate any longer. I feel free to love you and be your friend."
He rested his cheek against the top of her head. "I did not think you would forgive me," he said. "I do not deserve forgiveness, Arabella. Will you ever be able to trust me again?"
"Yes," she said. She withdrew her head from his shoulder and looked earnestly up into his face. "Trust is not blindly believing in someone. It is knowing and loving that person and expecting what one knows is best in that person. Yes, I trust you, my lord. You told me the truth when I asked. You did not lie to me. I want to do what you suggested. I mean about going to Norfolk, just the two of us together, and getting to know each other and becoming friends. Oh, may we? Please?"
He hugged her to him suddenly. "Arabella," he said, his voice not quite steady, "what have I ever done to deserve you? I love you so very much."
"I think I am going to scream very soon," Arabella said quite calmly. "Your saddle is digging so hard into my hip, my lord, that the pain is becoming unbearable."
One moment later he was on the ground and lifting her down so that she slid along the full length of him. She twined her arms around his neck and looked eagerly into his face.
"Do you really love me?" she asked. "It is quite all right if you do not. I know I am not pretty or very elegant and I will undoubtedly become plump again since you commanded me to start eating. And I know you married me in order to do a kindness to my family. If we can be friends, I will be happy. If I can just make you comfortable, I will be happy. You do not have to feel that you must love me."
"Arabella," he said. Her face was framed by his hands. "Will you remember last night? Were my actions then those of a friend merely? Or of a man who was looking for comfort from his wife? Look into my eyes. Are they the eyes of your friend only?"
She looked and shook her head slowly.
"My actions were those of a lover," he said. "I loved you last night. And I will tell you in all truth that I have not loved another woman as I loved you then. And these eyes are the eyes of a lover. I love you, unworthy as I am to do so."
"Oh," she said, "I think I am going to cry, my lord."
"Don't," he said, bringing her forehead against his and continuing to hold her face. "I gave my handkerchief to Frances. Kiss me instead. But after you have called me what you called me last night. Will you, Arabella?"
"Geoffrey?" she whispered.
"Yes," he said. "Say it again, love, please."
"Geoffrey," she said out loud. She flushed.
He smiled and brought his lips to hers. "Will you call me that from now on?" he asked.
"Yes, Geoffrey," she said.
"We now have a very serious choice to make," he said. "We can either climb back onto that horse and ride back to Farraday's for luncheon, or we can stay off that horse and not ride back to Farraday's for luncheon and for whatever activity he has planned for immediately after. Which will it be, Arabella?"
She looked around her at the shady trees, the gra.s.s underfoot, and the horse grazing a few feet away. She looked up at her husband and flushed again.
"I am not very hungry, my lord," she said.
Lord Astor wrapped his arms around his wife and drew her full against him. "What a dreadful thing to say to your own husband, Arabella," he said, "when you have just declared that you wish to make me comfortable. I will just have to create a hunger in you, it seems."
"Oh," she said, "I thought we were speaking of food. How foolish of me! Yes. I have just realized that I am quite ravenous, my lorda"Geoffrey."
The Obedient Bride Part 16
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The Obedient Bride Part 16 summary
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