I could see that Daniel was upset by our abrupt goodbye, but maybe it was for the best. I'd purposely shed all my tears the night before so that I wouldn't break down in front of him, but in the end there just wasn't time to cry.
I'd especially dreaded the moment when the car would pull away, leaving me standing there. But Sharon whisked me away even before the car door closed, and with Brian and the others falling in around me like my own personal group of bodyguards, we walked around the block to my cottage and went inside. Drew turned the television on and found a noisy soccer match, Mary pulled out the ingredients for cinnamon-sugar cookies, and we spent the rest of the morning baking and eating and rooting for our team.
But it was a Monday after all, and though they'd been sweet to take the morning off to be with me, they all had jobs and lives to get back to. Each of them gave me a hug as they left, until finally only Mary lingered on the sofa. "You're going to be late," I warned her. "You don't want to join the ranks of the unemployed and have to counsel yourself, do you?"
"I still have a few minutes." She patted the cushion beside her and I sat down, tucking my legs under me. "Be honest, Sare-bear. Are you all right?"
"I will be," I said. "At least, I think I will."
"This is my fault," she said guiltily. "I shouldn't have pushed you to take this job. If I'd known how this would turn out for you - "
"You didn't push me, Mary. I signed on even after I knew it was him. I was... curious, I suppose."
"And are you sorry now?"
I thought about it for a moment. If Daniel never called, never came back, if I never saw him again, would I regret it? "No," I said with certainty. "I'm not sorry." And I meant it.
Mr. Davenport was kind enough to call that afternoon to let me know that Daniel had arrived safely. He thanked me for my 'service to the Crown', and arranged to meet me at the cottage the next morning with a last bit of paperwork and my final paycheck. I'd hoped to give myself a day or two before going back, but there was still work that had to be done before he came, cleaning and closing up the cottage. So I gathered up my rags and cleaners and off I went through the fence once again.
The first thing I noticed was the silence; it had never been quiet when Daniel had been there, and it seemed to echo almost deafeningly in my ears. The second was the ledger lying open on the table, and I stepped closer to have a look. The columns were all totaled, more or less neatly, and the total at the bottom was circled with pride. He'd done it, just as he said he would. "Yay," I cheered softly, then laughed at myself.
"All right, down to business," I declared aloud, and headed for the bathroom to get my least favorite chores done first. But the sink gleamed hello at me, and when I pushed the shower curtain to the side, it was the same. The mirror was spotless, the toilet too. Daniel had obviously spent much of his last night cleaning, and my throat tightened because I knew he'd done it for me.
I went back to the kitchen – same story. Oh, the floor could use a good mopping, and there were a few odds and ends still in the refrigerator, but the bulk of the work was already done. Off to the bedroom I went, where I found the bed stripped and sheets waiting for the wash. I felt tears burning my eyes and stomped my foot in frustration. "Darn you, Daniel. Now who's cheating?" I picked up the sheets and turned toward the door, and there was the little Daniel on the chest, smiling at me. And it turned out that I had plenty of tears left after all.
It was good, but strange, to be home again. My family was happy to have me back, and a special dinner was made with my favorite dishes. They were full of questions and I did my best to answer them, telling them all about the village, the docks, the people. But one person was missing from my stories, the one person I couldn't bring myself to talk about yet. Across the table Andrew was watching me and I knew he must have noticed my omission, but I avoided his gaze and concentrated on my father.
I'd missed him, of course, and now that I was home I saw him with new eyes. He was no longer a young man, and he seemed somewhat wearier than when I'd left. I wondered if maybe my absence had been taxing for him, with my responsibilities being shared out among the others. Still, his eyes were bright as he listened to my stories and his laughter rang out when I told him about my unexpected leap into the sea.
Aunt Isabel was surprised to hear I'd met someone she knew from her own disowning, and after a moment's thought, she clapped her hands with delight. "Millie and Lew! Of course! They were such a charming couple. They had me to tea, and she made the most delicious cinnamon buns. I've still never had any to beat them, all these years later."
Even the staff seemed pleased to have me back, hardly bothering to hide their smiles when I greeted them. Once dessert had been served and we were left alone again, Andrew cleared his throat, took Madelyn's hand, and looked at me. "Madelyn and I are officially announcing our engagement in the morning."
My father and aunt smiled my way, obviously having heard the news already, and I sat back in my chair. "Wow. That's great." I got up and went around the table, kissing Madelyn on the cheek, then turned to Andrew and we did the 'secret handshake' we'd done when we were boys. Of course Aunt Isabel sighed her disapproval of our poor decorum at the table, but we were used to that.
"As if anyone in the world is surprised by this breaking news," I joked as I retook my seat. "When's the wedding?"
"Next May, the fifteenth. You'll be best man, of course."
I smiled my thanks. "It will be an honor, elder brother."
Talk of engagement portraits and guest lists dominated the conversation until we'd finished the last course. As we all rose from the table, I automatically reached for my plate and silver, but quickly realized that no one else was doing the same and left them where they were.
While the others went straight into the sitting room for coffee, I lingered in the hallway, reacquainting myself with the portraits that lined the wall. Generation after generation of my family were represented here, including my mother. I stopped in front of her portrait.
"Hello, mum," I said softly. "I'm home." I was, as I'd always been, drawn to her eyes. She was the only one to have such a dark chocolate brown – the rest of us had blue or green – but it struck me now that Sarah had the same dark brown eyes. I remembered Sarah's reaction to Andrew 'marrying his mother', and I chuckled. What would she say about eyes? Maybe I'd better not mention it.
I rejoined the others. Andrew and Madelyn were sitting together on the chaise, Andrew's arm around her as she leaned back against him and spoke softly over her shoulder. They looked happy enough, and Andrew's tender smile at whatever she'd just said seemed proof enough for me that there was true affection between them. Aunt Isabel was pouring out coffee, and when she looked up at me inquiringly, I shook my head.
"Daniel," my father called, and beckoned me to join him. He was sitting at the chess board, putting the pieces into place for a new match, and I took the seat opposite him. "Up for a game?"
"Absolutely." I arranged the last of my pieces and, being white, made my opening move.
"Hmm. I've nearly forgotten your strategies," he said as he slid a pawn forward.
"I'm the play-as-fast-as-possible son," I grinned, and proved it by immediately going to my rook.
"That's right." He tapped his chin, deliberated a bit, then advanced a second pawn. "I never did understand that."
My knight slid through the opening I'd created. "I like to think it's because I know what I want and I go after it."
Aunt Isabel brought my father's coffee and set it down beside him. "Thank you, Iz," he said distractedly, studying the board. She stayed a moment to look too.
"You've always been the intuitive one," she said to me. "Making your decisions right away and not looking back. Andrew is the methodical son, thinking things through forward and backward. Just look at him." I took a glance at my brother and his future wife, still talking softly together. "Seven years now, and they're finally ready to announce their engagement. By the time the wedding gets here, I'll be too old to enjoy it."
My father looked up fondly at his sister. "You'll never be too old to enjoy a wedding. Nothing like a good cry, you always say."
"It's true," she protested. "It cleanses the soul." She bent and gave me a hug. "Good to have you home, Daniel." she said, then moved away to enjoy her own cup.
"Good to be home," I answered her, then returned my attention to my father. "So, tell me the truth. Was it terribly boring around here without me?"
He chuckled as he finally decided on his move, and his bishop advanced a cautious two spaces. "It was certainly quieter," he said dryly. As I set a thoughtful hand on one piece, then reconsidered and touched another, he looked up at me apologetically. "I'm afraid your schedule will be pretty full for a few weeks."
"I assumed as much." I made my move. "Anything very important?"
"All of it's important," he said, giving his usual answer. "But nothing too far away from home at first." He leaned forward and winked conspiratorially. "I wanted to enjoy having you around for a while."
Bentley wandered into the room, came over to give me a wag and a lick on the hand, then settled as usual at my father's feet. As the game went on, Andrew stepped up beside me, drawing Madelyn with him. "You won't be too upset if we go, I hope. Madelyn promised her sister we'd come see the baby."
"Vic had her baby?" I grinned. "Congratulations, Aunt Mad!"
Madelyn wrinkled her nose with a soft laugh. "You know I hate that nickname, Dan."
"I know. Why else would I use it?"
She gave me a light slap on the arm, then they said their goodbyes to my father and Isabel and left.
"Personally, I like it," Aunt Isabel called over from her seat on the antique sofa she favored. "Aunt Mad. It fits. Remember when that blue monstrosity of a hat blew off her head in the carriage and went flying down the road? The horse behind stepped on it, which if you ask me was doing the hat a favor, but oh my, was she mad!" We all laughed, and my father jumped his rook to block my bishop and sat back looking pleased with himself.
"Do you think... " I felt silly asking, but forged ahead anyway. "Do you think they're devoted to each other?"
"Devoted?" Aunt Isabel repeated, turning to look at me curiously. "That's a strange question."
"But do you?" I asked her.
My father answered first. "I do," he said easily. "If you mean that they're fully committed to marriage. Good and bad, thick and thin. I think she'll stay with it and do well, and Andrew believes she will too."
"Oh," Aunt Isabel muttered. "If that's what you meant."
I chuckled, then slid my queen across the board. "Check." I looked at my watch and wondered what Sarah was doing right now, whether she was waiting for my call.
"Oh, rats," my father exhaled, then brightened. "Oh, wait." He slid a pawn between my queen and his king, then looked up at me.
I took the pawn. "Check."
"Oh, rats," he sighed again, and I smiled at how dear he could be. I really had missed him. If only Sarah could meet him. Maybe seeing us like this, a family at home, would calm her fears about a royal future.
We finished our game at half past nine, and with my mind miles away my father beat me easily. I let myself be caught in a yawn and agreed when he suggested that I was tired from my trip. I said my good nights, left them, and as soon as I was out of range, sprinted upstairs.
Sam seemed excited to see me, doing a quick lap around the old bowl. "It's phone call time, Sammy," I sang as I gave him his late night snack, then impulsively kicked off my shoes and pulled off my socks, enjoying the bracing cold of the floor on my feet. My bed, so much higher and larger than the one I'd grown used to, surrounded me in an almost ridiculous softness as I flopped down and grabbed the phone.
One ring, then two, and I started getting strangely nervous. Had she gone out? I'd told her I would call. Three rings. Or was she sitting by the phone, listening to it ring, choosing not to answer? Was she going to use this separation to disappear from my life? The fourth ring, when I was sure she hated me for leaving and wanted nothing to do with me, cut off midway.
All it took was the sound of her voice, a bit breathless from hurrying to the phone, and my worries disappeared as quickly as they'd come. "Hello, sunshine," I grinned.