"Your Pa put me in your bed. I'm sorry," Charlie whispered while he carefully returned his hand to his side again, releasing the corner of the sheet, which is what I assumed he used to wipe my mouth with. His eyes were fixed on my face. They were dark right now, and they seemed…distant. Not that I have ever actually noticed Charlie's eyes this close before, but right now, as I looked into their depths, I realized that what I was seeing was more like heartbreak.
“No, I want to pen a reply, now, so it reaches there before we do. I want to have some wheels set into motion. If Captain Jefferies didn’t stop by today, I wouldn’t know about the land grants. This helps both of us. It’s just a little longer. What can go wrong?” There was the lengthy silence again. I could see in my mind’s eye my Papa running his hands through his hair. He did this when he was troubled or thinking hard on something.
“Oh Alright, I’ll do it, but if I have no wife to return to, I’ll quit. Then see if you can find as good a steward as me.” His voice sounded lighter and resigned. My Papa had just made a decision that affected us all in such a way that I couldn’t even comprehend.
A part of Ashleigh’s skirt wrapped around William’s legs as he spun her in a big hug. As William was putting Ashleigh down, I walked over, paused, and curtsied just like Ashleigh showed me in front of William.
“Welcome home, Master Townshend,” I said. Ashleigh clasped her hands in front of her and beamed a proud smile.
“What, no hug?” William asked, looking between Ashleigh and I. Shaking my head I held out my hand. William wanted to laugh at me, I knew, but who better to practice on with what I had learned than with a true gentleman.
“You’re my family, Nash. Your mama is now mine, and I love Payton.” Charlie said. “I don’t think you have to worry about anything happening. If anything, the trip might take longer, that’s all.” Seeming unsure of himself, Charlie paused. I wondered if he were contemplating telling Nash about what he and I had overheard. Whatever he was thinking, he continued with a firm, gentle voice. “If anything would happen, we will get through it together. I’m here to stay, and you can rely on me.”
I threw myself onto Charlie. “Charlie! Charlie! Are you ok?” I asked, crying and holding onto him, as he tried to draw in breath. He cupped my face with his hand, and when our eyes connected this time, I saw true hurt and pain reflected in them. “Oh, Charlie...”
“Take her back to the house, William, and get Lord Townshend. Nash, make sure you see Ashleigh home,” Papa ordered, pulling me away from Charlie, and pushing me into William’s arms. I wasn’t ready to leave Charlie’s side, and continued to reach for him, as I screamed his name.
“Yes, Mr. Martin! Right away! Come along, Payton,” William said, while turning me toward his mount.
Rolling over so that Ash couldn’t see my face, I cried some more. Life was not fair. I wanted to go with Papa, too. This morning it was just one leaving, and now it was three. I didn’t know if I could get past this moment. Ash was sobbing, and her sorrow only made me feel worse. I knew Mama needed me here, but for right now, I wanted to feel sad. It took a long time, but when I finally did calm down, I was resolved. Resolved to be there for Mama and Ash, and like Papa said, the days would go by quickly.
I startled when I saw a hand dash out from behind me and a finger dip into the custard I was stirring. I followed the hand, as the finger then retreated into Will’s mouth. “Well, that didn’t take long,” I remarked.
“Yes, I can smell your cooking from the other side of the house, Payton,” he said between licking his finger and going in for a second dip. I smacked his hand. “Ouch!”
“Stop that! You’ll get all you want later, Will.” I went back to what I was doing. Will leaned a hip on the bench and crossed his, now, well defined arms across his well-defined chest. I slipped a sideways glance at him and smiled to myself. Will was much taller, now. He had grown up into a fine specimen of a man, and a true gentleman; not, that trying to steal tastes from my mixing bowl was terribly gentlemanly. Nevertheless, I liked to look at him, and I enjoyed his company.
Tears streamed down my cheeks, and I finally found it in myself to call his name. Well, I thought I did. I felt I did, or maybe I had screamed it in my mind. I wasn't ready to leave him. This ache, I was feeling in my very soul, was the very reason I wanted to avoid exploring what I felt for the man who was standing there watching us leave. He was waving goodbye to me, as I sailed to a future that may not hold him in it.
The sun made the sparsest of clouds glow in various shades of orange, and the rays which made their way between them hit the water in shards, casting off the ocean like sparkling crystal, at times forcing me to shade my eyes against its brilliance. Purples would consume the skies soon, letting me know that the sun was once again going to be gone for another day. It would all happen quite quickly, which was the reason why I had never missed one. The temperature had become noticeably warmer over the past few weeks, and I revelled in the tepid ocean breeze. It played with my hair and tickled over the exposed parts of my skin. I looked up to the Captain to find him watching me as I watched the sun set.
“Well, you have to open it.” Still no emotion, but he started to open my present. When he had taken off the paper and turned it over to see the front, he stilled. “Is this a good sign or bad?” I thought. Then, he did the same thing I did when I saw it: traced the outline of the black and white picture of the little pirate boy.
“Thank you, Payt,” he said, looking up to me, The expression in his dark eyes now softened. His hair was dishevelled from working and he just looked…amazing. Then, all of a sudden, he pulled away from the bench and closed the meagre gap between us. His hand came up and touched my face, ever so lightly. His fingers followed the line of my cheek and under my jaw. I could only look at him, I couldn’t move. “It’s the nicest thing any person has thought to give me. I’m glad it came from you.”
“Payton, just promise me one thing, and that will be all that I ask you to do for me.” My heart stilled, in fear of what Ashleigh would ask of me. Would she ask me to marry her brother to save him the heart ache she feels? I stared at her, unblinking. A true friend should say, ‘Yes, I’ll do anything, just say the word’, but I didn’t. I sat there thinking of myself, while my friend clearly needed me to say something; a friend who has been there for me, without asking anything from me before.
“Anything, Ashleigh, just name it,” I said, resolved.
“Make the right decision, Payt, and do it soon. I couldn’t bear to see William suffer, as I do.” I looked to my feet, but then slipped to the floor in front of Ashleigh, kneeling before her. I reached for her petite hands and took them in mine.
“Ashleigh, I promise.” I meant it.
“Oh thank you,” I said again, throwing myself over Nash to embrace William in a big hug. My hair flew into his eyes and he laughed, trying to see through the dark brown mass. I often took it out of its braid when we played down by the lake, and today was no exception. He had to push it away from his face before he could talk.
“Well, now I know,” he finally said.
“Know what?” I asked, pulling out of his arms, still beaming.
“How to get a hug from you?” he said with a chuckle and a wink.
“Um, morning, Payt,” Nash said, as he handed over the eggs. He was giving me a funny look, and then he looked towards Charlie. I looked towards Charlie, too. He was staring at me with quite a serious expression on his face. “Payt,” Nash continued, “did you know you’re still in your night dress?” I briefly looked down to my attire to see that, yes, I was still, indeed, wearing my night dress.
“Yes, I slept late, and I want to cook for you all,” I was still standing in front of Nash holding the eggs.
“But, did you know that those fancy ones you have are pretty sheer?”
“Surely you can’t remember, Will,” I said. Then, from across the room I heard Ashleigh say,
“William Townshend, you couldn’t possibly remember which dress of Payton’s that was!” All sound quieted at Ashleigh’s remark, and now everyone was paying attention to what was transpiring between us.
“Those sound like betting words, Lady Ashleigh.” Will bent down and held out his good hand for Grace to take.” Miss Grace, would you please come out from behind Lady Payton’s skirts and show me that beautiful new dress of yours?” Then, he cocked his head and said “Please.” Gracey placed her hand in Will’s, and let herself be pulled away from me to stand in front of him.