“Ask ’im yourself!” he said, and scampered down the road.
“I intend to.” Resuming her walk at a leisurely pace, Sara sighed with a mixture of pleasure and sadness. This was where she belonged, in a place where everything was familiar to her. She knew the patterns of every path, meadow, and stream. She was acquainted with everyone in the village, and the histories of the families who lived there. Greenwood Corners was a lovely place. But this homecoming was different from her others. Instead of relief and joy, she felt hollow, as if she had left some vital part of herself behind. Not even her parents and their smiles of loving welcome had been able to take away her unease. She was eager to see Perry this morning, hoping he would provide the comfort she needed.
Her heart picked up a faster beat as she approached the Kingswood home. It was a charming village manor of classical design, with ivy creeping over its scored stucco front. Inside, the rooms were decorated with simple plasterwork and refined shades of ocher, brown, and pea-green. In the warm seasons Perry’s mother, Martha, was most often found in the kitchen garden at the back of the manor, tending to her herbs and vegetables. During the winter months she spent her time doing needlework in the parlor, close to the light and warmth offered by the fireplace. And Perry, of course, was in the library, poring over his beloved history and poetry books.
Sara knocked at the door and scraped her feet at the side of the step. After a minute or two Martha Kingswood appeared. She was an attractive woman with blue-gray eyes and hair that had once been blond but had faded to a pale vanilla color. Her welcoming expression melted as she recognized the visitor. “Back from your gallivanting, I see.”
Meeting the older woman’s sharp eyes, Sara smiled cheerfully. “Not gallivanting. Researching.” She couldn’t help thinking of the warning her own mother, Katie, had given her a few years ago. “Be careful of what you tell that woman, Sara. I’ve known Martha since she was a girl. She’ll encourage you to confide in her, and then find a way to use your words against you.”
“But I’ve never given her a reason to dislike me,” Sara had protested.
“You have Perry’s affection, dear. That’s reason enough.”
Since then Sara had come to realize that her mother was right. Widowed a few years after Perry was born, Martha had centered her life around her son. Whenever she was in the same room, she hovered over him with an indiscreet jealousy that made Sara uncomfortable. Perry had resigned himself to his mother’s possessiveness, knowing that she disliked anyone who took his attention away from her. But he claimed that after he was married, Martha would soften her tightly controlling grip. “We’ll all be able to come to an understanding,” he had told Sara countless times. “Remember not to take anything she says personally. She would behave like this with any girl I chose to court.”
Martha blocked the doorway with her sticklike figure, as if she wished to prevent Sara from entering. “When did you return?”
“I suppose you’re here to see my son.” Martha’s tone was smooth, but it carried an edge of hostility that made Sara wince.
“Yes, Mrs. Kingswood.”
“Perhaps next time you could arrange your visit so as not to disturb his midmorning studies.” Martha’s tone implied that it was the height of inconsideration to have called at such an hour. Before Sara could reply, Martha opened the door wider and motioned her into the house.
Hoping Martha was not following her, Sara quickened her step through the hallway. It would be nice, she thought wryly, if her reunion with Perry was private, at least for a minute or two. Thankfully she didn’t hear Martha’s footsteps behind her. She reached the library, a comfortable room decorated with papered panels of pink, red, and brown birds, and fitted with rows of mahogany bookshelves.
The young man seated at the rosewood desk by one of the windows stood up and smiled at her.
“Perry!” she cried, and ran to him.
Chuckling at her impulsiveness, Perry caught her in his arms. He was slender and of moderate height, with the most elegant hands Sara had ever seen on a man. His every gesture was infused with grace. She had always loved to watch him write, play the piano, or merely turn the pages of a book. Closing her eyes, she inhaled the scent of his cologne and smiled in contentment. “Oh, Perry.” The feel of his compact body was familiar and comfortable, making it seem that the past days in London had never happened.
But all at once a memory blazed across her mind…Derek Craven’s powerful arms crushing her close, his softly growling voice in her ear. “I want to hold you like this until your skin melts into mine…I want you in my bed, the smell of you on my sheets…”
Startled, Sara drew her head back.
“Darling?” Perry murmured. “What is it?”
She blinked hard, while a shiver crossed her shoulders. “Just…a chill from outside.” Staring at him, she tried to blot out the memory with the sight of Perry’s face. “You’re so handsome,” she said sincerely, and he laughed, pleased.
Everyone acknowledged that Perry was the best-looking man in Greenwood Corners. His hair, a little too long at the moment, was a coppery shade of gold. The rich jewel-blue of his eyes was far more striking than her own. His nose was small and straight, his lips fine, his forehead high and pale, all in the mode of a romantic Byronic hero.
After glancing around to make certain they were unobserved, Perry leaned forward to kiss her. Sara lifted her chin willingly. But suddenly all she could think of was a scarred face close to hers, the gleam of wicked green eyes, a hard mouth that searched and plundered ruthlessly…so different from Perry’s gentle lips. Closing her eyes tightly, she willed herself to respond.
Finishing the kiss with a slight smacking noise, Perry lifted his head and smiled at her. “Where is your cap?” he asked. “It always looks so pretty with the lace framing your cheeks.”
“I decided not to wear it today,” Sara frowned as his arms loosened from around her. “No…don’t let go just yet.”
“Mother will interrupt us soon,” he warned.
“I know.” Sara sighed and stood back from him reluctantly. “It’s just that I missed you so.”
“As I missed you,” Perry replied gallantly, gesturing to the painted beechwood settee. “Let’s sit down and talk, darling. I believe Mother means to bring in some tea—I hear her stirring about in the kitchen.”
“Couldn’t we have some time alone?” she whispered, mindful of Martha’s acute hearing. “I have some things to tell you privately.”
“We’ll have a lifetime of privacy, you and I,” Perry promised, his blue eyes twinkling. “Surely an hour here and there spent with my mother isn’t too much to endure?”
“I suppose not,” she said reluctantly.
“That’s my darling girl.”
Glowing at his praise, Sara allowed him to take her cloak. She seated herself on the heavily embroidered cushions of the settee. Perry took her hands, stroking his thumbs over her knuckles. “Well,” he said fondly, “it appears your visit to London did you no harm.” His lips parted in a teasing smile. “Mother has some absurd notions about your research trips. ‘How does that girl know all about such indecent things as harlots and thieves?’ she asks. I’ve had a difficult time convincing her that you haven’t been roving through back-street gin shops and bordellos! Mother simply doesn’t understand what a marvelous imagination you have.”
“Thank you,” Sara said uncomfortably, fixing her gaze on the pair of black and gilt sconces on the opposite wall. Although she had never lied to him about her research in the city, she had gently misled him, glossing over most of her dangerous activities and making it all sound rather dry and dull. Perry had always accepted her descriptions without question, but his mother had a suspicious nature.
“After all,” Perry continued, “my darling Sara spends most of her time sorting through book collections and touring old buildings. Isn’t that so?” He beamed at her, while Sara felt heat creeping up from her neckline.
“Yes, indeed. Er…Perry…there’s something I must tell you. During my stay in London, there was a night or two when I came in very late. Mrs. Goodman threatened to write to my mother and her other friends in Greenwood Corners that I’m a ‘reckless hoyden.’ ”
Perry collapsed with amusement at the notion. “Sara Fielding, a reckless hoyden! Anyone who knows you would laugh at that.”
She smiled in relief. “I’m glad you won’t pay attention to anything Mrs. Goodman might say.”
Perry squeezed her hands. “Perhaps some old biddy might spread gossip about you because you’ve written some foolish story about Mathilda. But I know you better than anyone, darling. I know the fondest wishes of your heart—and I’m going to make them come true. After that, there’ll be no need for you to worry with all your daydreaming and scribbling. You’ll have me and a houseful of your own children to occupy your time with. All a woman could want.”
Sara looked at him in surprise. “Are you saying you would want me to stop writing?”
“I’ve brought tea,” came Martha’s voice from the doorway. She entered the room bearing an engraved silver tray and a tea service that had been in the Kingswood family for three generations.
“Mother,” Perry said with a brilliant smile. “How did you know that was exactly what we wanted? Come join us while Sara regales us with an account of her visit to the wicked city.”
Prodded by Martha’s disapproving gaze, Sara inched away from Perry until they were seated at a more circumspect distance from each other.
Martha placed the tray on the round boulle table in front of them. She settled into a nearby chair. “Why don’t you pour, Sara?” Martha invited, in a tone that implied she was bestowing an honor on a favored guest. But somehow Sara had the feeling she was undergoing a test. Carefully she strained the tea into one of the delicate china cups, and added milk and sugar. Her suspicion that she was being tested was confirmed by Martha’s sourly pleased expression. “That is not how Perry likes it,” Martha said.
Sara turned a questioning gaze to Perry. “You take milk and sugar, don’t you?”
He shrugged slightly. “Yes, but—”
“You poured the milk in last,” Martha interrupted, before Perry could enlighten her. “My son prefers the milk first and tea added second. It makes a distinct difference in the flavor.”
Thinking that perhaps she was joking, Sara looked back at Perry. He gave her a helpless smile. Sara forced herself to shrug prosaically. “Well,” she said with a faint tremor of laughter in her voice, “I shall try to remember that, Mrs. Kingswood. I can’t think why it has escaped my notice all these years.”
“Perhaps you should try to be more observant of my son’s needs.” Martha nodded in satisfaction at the lesson she had just delivered. “You might remember that I prefer mine the same way, but without the sugar.”
Obediently Sara prepared the beverages the proper way, and settled back with her own cup of tea—no milk, extra sugar. After she took the first sip, she met Martha’s inquisitive gaze. The older woman’s lips compressed until thin vertical lines were scored all along the edges. “I assume you attended church when you were in London, Sara?”
The temptation to lie was strong. Sara gulped more tea and shook her head apologetically. “There wasn’t time.”
“There wasn’t time,” Martha repeated softly. “Hmph. I’m certainly grateful the Lord doesn’t give us such excuses when we entreat Him with our prayers. As busy as He is, He always finds the time for us. I should think we would all be willing to do the same for Him.”
Sara nodded ruefully, reflecting that Martha Kingswood’s record for regular church attendance was unmatched by anyone. Martha always arrived fifteen minutes early and sat in the front row. It was also her habit to leave fifteen minutes after everyone else, for she felt it was her special responsibility to give Reverend Crawford her opinions on how the sermon could have been improved. “Neither Perry nor I has ever missed a Sunday for any reason,” Martha was saying. “And neither did Mr. Kingswood when he was alive. ‘I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.’ Do you know where that quote comes from, Sara?”
“Job?” Sara guessed.
“Psalms,” Martha replied with a frown. “No woman aspiring to be Perry’s wife would ever consider missing a service, unless it was for some unavoidable reason.”
“Death? Natural disasters?” Sara suggested innocently, feeling Perry’s knee shove against hers in warning.
“Precisely so,” Martha said.
Sara was silent, all of her exuberance at being with Perry fading. She had come here to be with him, not to receive a lecture from his mother, no matter how well-intentioned. Why was Perry allowing it without a word? He was being complacent while his mother dominated their time together. Ignoring a twinge of resentment, Sara tried to steer the conversation in a new direction. “Tell me what happened in Greenwood Corners while I was away. How is old Mr. Dawson’s gout?”
“Much better,” Martha replied. “He actually put his shoes on the other day and went for a stroll.”
“His niece Rachel became engaged to Johnny Chesterson the day before last,” Perry added.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Sara exclaimed. “The Chestersons are lucky to have such a nice girl in their family.”
Martha nodded primly. “Rachel is the kind of spiritual, self-effacing girl that Mr. Kingswood always hoped his son would marry. She would never dream of drawing attention to herself…as some young women do.”
“Are you referring to me?” Sara asked quietly.
“I am making a point about Rachel.”
Slowly Sara set her cup and saucer on the table and looked at Perry, who had colored at his mother’s rudeness. “It’s a wonder you never courted such a paragon,” Sara told him, smiling although her chest was tightening with anger.
Martha answered for her son. “Perry was never free to court her or any other girls in the village. Someone else was always taking up his time with her demanding possessiveness.”
Sara felt her face turn red. “Was that you or me, I wonder?” Standing abruptly, she snatched up her cloak. “Excuse me. I think it’s time I left.”