by Pam and Del
Could she forgive him?
Commodore Lord Hornblower gazed out unseeingly at the Kentish countryside as the chaise sped along the road towards Smallbridge. The uncertainty of the next few hours almost made him wish that the journey would never end. He both longed for and dreaded his arrival.
They had both erred. But his mistakes were by far the greater. She had a right to be angry with him: he had refused to accompany her to Vienna . . . yet he had not hesitated to flee to France and Marie's welcoming arms.
Marie, who now lay in the earth with the green sod above her. That, too, was his fault.
When he had believed himself condemned to death, he had thought of them. Of Barbara, choosing another husband from among the many suitors who would seek her out, and Richard, still so young, who might not remember his father at all by the time he grew to manhood.
Would she forgive him?
Would she speak to him?
Would she even be willing to see him?
After hours of frowning effort and countless baskets of crumpled, unsuccessful pages, he had managed to write to her. The awkward sentences he had composed blurred in his mind, all but the last one: "I pray that we can forgive each other and start afresh." He had not mentioned Marie. Barbara, he knew, was an intelligent woman-she may have suspected or even heard rumors. But, in the end, he had not been able to inflict such a wound. Confession might have eased his heart but it would have brought her only pain.
Not daring to trust to the post, he had sent Brown and his new bride home first, with the letter. But how could he be sure that she had seen it, that she had not consigned it, unread, to the flames?
The cessation of movement roused him from his dark thoughts, and he recognized the courtyard of Smallbridge. The servants-including Brown in his new livery--were lined up respectfully to greet him; descending from the chaise, he acknowledged their murmurs of welcome, even as his thoughts strayed to Barbara . . .whom he did not see in the throng.
But "Father!" exclaimed four-year-old Richard, his face alight.
With a nod at Richard's nurse, Hornblower stooped to embrace his son, then lifted him onto his shoulders. The child squealed his pleasure and Hornblower swallowed hard, wondering how he could have, even for a moment, considered abandoning his son.
Keeping a firm hold on Richard's legs, he addressed the servants at large. "Where is her ladyship?"
An awkward pause, then the housekeeper replied, a faint frown between her brows. "She said she had some matter about the estate to attend to, my lord. But she bade us be here to welcome you."
"Ah. Very well." Hornblower nodded as if he had expected this answer, hoping that his disappointment was not visible to the staff.
"Cook made all your favorites for dinner," Richard piped up from his perch. "And Father," he added, "I have a pony now!"
Hornblower blinked, astonished, then seized upon the opportunity to end an awkward situation. "Then, by all means, you must show him to me," he declared and bore his giggling son off to the stables.
After triumphantly showing off his new acquisition, Richard was much in need of a wash. Hornblower accompanied him to the nursery for the necessary ablutions, in which he joined, then departed with the promise of visiting again just before Richard's bedtime.
Upon inquiring after Barbara, he learned that she had since returned and gone immediately to her own room, where she had sent for dinner on a tray. Again he received the news impassively, as if this were quite the normal course of events, and went downstairs to the dining room.
He ate in solitary splendor, feeling increasingly nettled. Then, as course succeeded course, without Barbara's appearance, his irritation turned to gloom. Was this to be the pattern for the rest of their lives--husband and wife going their divergent ways? It was common enough in arranged, society marriages, but theirs had not been such a marriage . . . until now.
His appetite gone, he pushed his plate away, sat brooding over his port as the servants cleared the table. The ticking of the dining-room clock seemed preternaturally loud, and he fancied he could hear the candles burning in the heavy silence.
He turned towards the speaker: one of the young parlormaids.
"My lord?" The girl blushed. "Her ladyship bids you come to her room."
"Ah." Hornblower digested this for a moment, then, "Did she mention what this was about?"
A headshake. "No, my lord. Only that you should come to her now."
Hornblower mounted the stairs, his steps as heavy as his spirits. Better, he supposed, to know the worst immediately. Once her summons might have given him hope, but surely her continued absence revealed her true intent.
His knock upon her door went unanswered. Stifling the urge to clear his throat, he tried the door, which swung silently open, allowing him to enter. Hornblower stepped over the threshold, then came to a complete halt when he caught sight of the bed they had so often shared.
The blue brocade curtains had been taken down. But, in their place, suspended from the canopy, hung a rippling banner of pure white silk, its fringed edges just brushing the pillows.
Truce or surrender? He hardly dared hope for either, and his heart began to beat in slow, heavy strokes.
When the dressing-room door opened, he did not heed it at first--until he smelled her scent.
Her fair hair hung loose over a filmy wrapper in his favorite shade of blue, a perfect match for the eyes now gazing steadily into his.
For a long moment, they stared at each other. Then Barbara held out her hands to him.
"Welcome home, my dear."