The walk to where Uncle Bernard was exercising the horses was beautiful. It crossed through the forest that crept down from the black cliffs and cocooned them in its mystery. The trail was wide enough for several men riding abreast and worn smooth from use, but still the mystery persisted. Elinor found herself stepping more carefully within the wood, as though all the stories from her childhood might be real in this place roofed by a green sky.
Aunt Maggie had packed them a picnic lunch to surprise Uncle Bernard. The youngest children ran in front laughing and chasing. Their antics amusing the elders who more sedately followed with the two women. Elinor smiled softly watching them.
“You’ve changed, my dear.”
Elinor looked over at her Aunt who was studying her intently.
“What do you mean?”
“When you came here you were timid, retiring and accepting of whatever happened to you with an air of great solemnity. Now,” Aunt Maggie surveyed her again and shrugged. “You’ve changed, Elinor, you look, well, you look alive for the first time in many years.”
Elinor frowned, alive? Had she seemed otherwise in years prior? Perhaps she had, she’d never done more than wait until recently.
“Don’t frown, dear. It is a very good thing. You always took whatever happened without reaction. It is nice to see you showing spirit again.”
Elinor couldn’t remember ever feeling as she did now. Had she been different as a child? She watched her cousins frolicking ahead and wondered if perhaps when she was that age she too had felt that free.
“Oh yes. When you were a girl you had spirit. You were never carefree like Lillian and Henry.” Aunt Maggie said, waving a hand at her youngest two, “But you were more vibrant. You asked questions and wanted to know things. You were always a serious girl, but never incurious or retiring.”
Elinor smiled, she did vaguely remember questioning her brother James’ tutor incessantly after his lessons. Her smile faded at the memory. James had been the eldest of the children in the family, he was supposed to be the heir but he’d been taken four winters ago when a sickness swept through the castle. Martin, the youngest of her brothers had followed shortly after. Arthur the second son was left as heir and now he fought in dangerous battles for the King. Why couldn’t the King and his rival be satisfied with what they had? Why must they constantly send good men to die?
“I’ve had a lot of time to think. I owe that to you.”
“Nonsense. We enjoy having you here and what is family for if not to help us up when we’ve fallen?”
“That’s right!” Gertie, Maggie’s oldest daughter, interrupted. “Mama’s always saying it’s important to stick up for family, unless they’re being foolish. Then you need to dump them on their behinds.”
“Gertie!” Her older brother Harrison scolded. Elinor laughed and the two blushed. Her cousins were so endearing. Both were a little younger than she and reminded her of times spent laughing with Martin and Arthur before she’d come out in society, before she’d lost them both.
The oldest of Maggie’s children, Carter, was with his father in the field putting a horse through its paces as they emerged from the forest trail. Gertie ran over to her father and flung herself into his waiting embrace. The youngest two followed suit and soon all four were sprawled in the grass in peels of laughter.
Elinor smiled as she helped Maggie set out the picnic lunch. Maggie had been lucky in her marriage, she and the Baron had been strangers when they were married but love had quickly blossomed between them. Elinor watched as Maggie greeted her husband with a long kiss. Could she have that kind of love one day? Was it possible to build that with her stranger, with Thomas? She had to believe it was.
They settled in for their picnic, it was a meal of laughter and good food. Ease and friendliness had marked her entire visit here. The baron was responsible for that in a big way. He dealt with people as easily as with horses and always treated you like your thoughts were the most important thing at that moment for him. His warmth coupled with Maggie’s made the entire manor overflow with kindness and love. That constant reminder of what was possible had strengthened her resolved to become stronger, to become a Rose. Now, it was time she acted on that.
“Aunt Maggie,” Elinor began as they were cleaning up, “I think it’s time I returned home.”
“So soon? Fall is just beginning, the hills are even more beautiful then.”
“I know, but I think I need to set things to rights at home before Lord Tethras comes for me.”
“I understand. Will you at least stay ’til Bernie takes the horses to market on the coast? That way you can travel with him. It would be safer.”
Elinor smiled and nodded, that sounded like an excellent idea. They took up the rear of the party, walking slowly, arm in arm. It was comforting to be here, but she could not remain in stagnant comfort. Moving into her own future Elinor knew she would draw on her time here, that it would bolster her resolve and her desire for the possible. She had learned so much about people and about running an estate. She could not wait to show her family, to show her future husband that she was not just a pretty wife, but that she was capable of handling a household, a life.
Hoof beats echoed from behind and Elinor looked over her shoulder. A rider was approaching at a gallop.
Maggie shouted at the youngest of her brood and they ran for their elder sister’s skirt. The rider however pulled up short before reaching their small party. He slowed the huge horse to a trot and drew up beside them.
“I am he.”
“Sir,” the man bowed from his saddle pulling the horse to a full stop. “I bear a message from Lord Hartley.”
He offered a leather satchel. Elinor felt her heart drop to her toes. A letter from her father. Aunt Maggie squeezed her arm, whether in comfort or anxiety Elinor could not say. Her blood was rushing in her ears as the Baron looked up from the letter.
“They won. Young Arthur is safe at home as is Lord Thomas.”
Elinor sighed and felt a great weight lift. They were alive, they were safe. She laughed as Aunt Maggie hugged her. They were alive! She would not have to bury anyone this time. They were alive! She turned with a broad smile to thank the messenger. He had removed his helmet and was shaking out a tangle of plain brown hair shot through with red. Elinor blinked as he looked at her, clear hazel eyes met hers and there was a twinkle of mischief there that flipped her heart upside-down.
Her stranger had come.