He swung down from the saddle and tucking his helmet in the crook of his arm bowed.
“Lady Hartley, we have never been formally introduced. I am Thomas Tethras, son of Lord Archibald Tethras.”
Elinor met his clear hazel eyes and for a moment completely forgot herself. He was so direct, so straightforward, addressing her before anyone else even though that was not altogether proper. Aunt Maggie’s discrete jab in the small of her back finally prompted her into a curtsey.
“A pleasure Lord Thomas.”
“Lord Thomas! A pleasure indeed. You will come to the house and rest I’m sure it was a long journey.”
Uncle Bernie thankfully took over the conversation. Elinor’s mind was running in circles, he was here. He had come here. He had come for her. She stared at his back as he chatted amicably with her Uncle and eldest cousin who led the horse they’d been working. What would she do? What could she say? All sense seemed to have fled. How could she reconcile the two men in her mind, her Stranger, and the shadowy betrothed, chosen for her by a Duke? As though she sensed Elinor’s confusion Aunt Maggie quickened her pace and took her husband’s arm, drawing him into a separate conversation, leaving Thomas to drift back to Elinor.
“I am afraid our first meeting was less than ideal.”
“You mean the beach?”
“Yes. It must seem as though I planned the whole thing.”
Elinor looked at him sidelong, she had often wondered that very thing. He wound the reins around his hand and unwound them again as he thought. Finally he looked up at her with those uncanny eyes that now seemed green beneath the leafy blanket.
“I can only offer my word that I had no notion of meeting you that day. I was not even certain who you were until you mentioned moving inland.”
“Thank you. I wondered about that after father mentioned you were the soldier I watched on our wedding day.”
He chuckled, it was a lovely sound, throaty and rich. A good companion to such a countenance.
“I wondered if you knew then that you watched your betrothed.”
“I did not, but I was fascinated nonetheless. You treated me as an equal.”
He looked at her and she met his gaze. There was a soft curl at the corner of his mouth, a sort of half smile. Amusement perhaps? His chainmail rustled as they continued walking, in silence for a moment. Elinor closed her eyes and committed that sound to her mind. She’d heard it so many times before, the rustle of chainmail, the squeak of leather and the tread of a man’s boots but this moment felt different. The back of her neck and head tingled, it was a turning point, something here would decide the course of her life. This moment, walking beside him down the forest trail, was somehow defining.
“I was afraid when father told me. I was afraid I’d lose another man, this time before we’d even married.”
She was not entirely certain why she told him that. It sounded so weak to her own ears.
“Was? Are you not afraid now?”
She thought for a moment. Was she still afraid? A small part of her was afraid, afraid that he would die, that she’d never get to ask him the hundreds of questions that had been on her mind since their meeting on the beach. She was worried he might turn out to have a horrible temper or be uncaring toward her. Mostly though, she was content, whether she married or not she was happy with herself.
“No. Not really.”
“Being confronted with death has a way of changing you.”
“You heard about my…mishap?”
He nodded as he stroked the neck of his big bay. She worried the end of her braid, what an awful thing to return from war and hear. Welcome back, your bride-to-be nearly drowned from misery.
“I overheard your mother discussing it with your brother.”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“No. I suspect they thought I might be concerned about marrying a girl that nearly drowned herself in the sea.”
Elinor blushed and glanced at her toes. He must think she hated him. That wasn’t the case at all, but how could she explain that?
“I insisted on coming here because I wanted a chance to prove myself.”
She looked at him sharply.
“Yes. You are right to have reservations about -.”
“Oh no! No. It’s not like that at all. It was an accident. I was just feeling so alone I wanted a connection to something. The tide pulled me under, I never wanted to get swept away.”
Her words tumbled out in a great rush. She had to make him understand it wasn’t him. It was her own fear and lack of confidence at that moment in her life.
He took her hand in his gauntleted one and she froze, staring wide-eyed at him.
“You do not need to explain. I was unhappy with the Duke forcing this on you. I’m glad I will be able to spend time with you before the wedding. I’m actually rather glad the messenger arrived that morning.”
His hand was so warm wrapped around hers, just like his words wrapping around her heart. She smiled and shifted their hands to weave her fingers with his. He blinked, confusion flickering across his face. Leaning across the distance between them she kissed his cheek. It was highly improper and she blushed fiercely when she heard Gertie giggle, but held his gaze.
There was high color on his cheeks and Elinor could not help but enjoy the covetous glint her kiss had brought to his eyes. This was so much more fun that she had imagined it would be. She’d never pictured playing or even flirting with her husband before, there was only the companionship of marriage. This was infinitely better. It startled her then when he released her hand, but she was instantly relieved when all he did was remove his gauntlet and tuck it in his belt. He reclaimed her hand with his now bare one and she blushed again. She’d only ever held bare hands with Benjamin, and that had been on their wedding night.
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and she looked over at him.
“If we are to be married, there are a few things you should know about me. First, I prefer Thomas, no title, just Thomas. Second, you will be my wife, not my trophy or my shadow. I expect and will demand your opinion.”
Elinor could not suppress the smile or the blush that grew suddenly. He was asking only what she had thought to work for and prove she was worthy to bear. He glanced at her and his brow drew down in confusion.
A giggle burbled up at his question. It was just so unbelievable.
“It’s Elinor, just Elinor and I expect the same from you.”
He squeezed her hand and smiled, his brow clearing. Elinor looked at Aunt Maggie walking with Uncle Bernie. Gertie was giggling and glancing back at them while Harrison quietly scolded her for peeking. Elinor blushed and looked back at him. Now that they had established that. It was time to get to know her Stranger.
“So tell me Thomas. What do you enjoy doing when you are not at war?”