“Try to sit as still as possible,” the painter said, peeking out yet again from behind his easel. “I’m trying to get the angle of the light across your face, and as evening comes on, it gets more and more difficult.”
Flora nodded and took a deep breath. “Whatever you need,” she said softly. It was a cathartic experience anyway for her. Each stroke of the brush through paint reminded her of this most recent gift that Spencer had given her. Now 23, she found a note at her door on her birthday. Though Spencer was away at sea, he’d still managed to arrange a gift that personal to his little wife.
“I’ve arranged for your portrait to be painted,” he’d written simply. “For me to look at, and for you to honour your mother.”
And it did feel like an honour given to Helene. Flora couldn’t help thinking about the jewellery box that sat upstairs in Whitley Hall even now with her mother’s sweet, serene face painted delicately on the top. It was a painting that had sent her on a quest the first time, and now, after all these years, it was a painting that was sealing that look of quiet happiness on her face for all time.
She had more reason than usual to smile lately. The news had come only a week ago that the war was over. Lines had been drawn, an agreement met, and the involved troops were all on their way across the sea back to their families. After all the loss and bloodshed, Flora felt like she could take a small breath of relief. Still, she wouldn’t fill her lungs fully until Spencer was out of the arms of the sea again and near her. He had been able to come back only occasionally, and though Flora watched other wives wither without the contact, she found every time she saw Spencer, she was more thankful for him and more in love.
She’d known him before under a guise, and now, seeing him at sea and in his element, she couldn’t help falling for the swarthy sailor as she’d fallen for the solicitor’s façade. Tom came skipping downstairs into the parlour where the painter was labouring over light and skin tone, his jaw hardening a bit already at the age of 13, his awkward youth still sorting itself out.
“Flora, I’ve news.” He had a letter in his hand, and despite her best attempts to hold a pose, Flora broke her eyes away from the spot where the painter had told her to fix her gaze and fell instead on the message.
“Spencer?” She couldn’t keep the anxiety from her voice.
Tom nodded, but immediately smiled. “Nothing to fear. Only that his boat is near to return. This letter came today, so he may be on shore already—sometimes a man on foot can beat the passage of the mail carrier, as you well know.”
“But not yet safe?” She bit her lip.
“Your face, Madame,” the painter said.
“Was the letter from Spencer himself?” she asked.
“No,” Tom said, a note of excitement falling out of his voice. “Just the regular Navy bulletin.”
Flora felt the familiar gnawing of fear in her stomach. She knew better, after all these years, than to suspect the worst at the first hint of silence, but she sometimes thought her entire life she would be suspicious that the gods were plotting to take back all the beauty they’d given her since she met Spencer.
“I’ll feel better when I hear from him,” she said at last.
Tom came and sat beside her, ignoring the painter’s protests that he was interfering with the light, and took her hand in his own. He was still a boy in so many ways, but he had the maturity and kindness of an adult in his demeanour.
“Flora, Spencer promised me that he would teach me how to sail. I know we’ve seen each other through much, so you understand as well as I that Spencer never breaks his promises.” He shrugged. “Since he must be here to teach me to sail, I can assure you he will return in time.”
Flora patted her cousin’s hand with her own. She was so thankful that all those years ago the boy had agreed to join her at Whitley. Aunt Beatrice still came up on occasion to visit, but in general she seemed happy with her son’s education and was content to enjoy Weymouth without meddling in Northampton. Beatrice had an allowance, a home, and a place in society. She was confident that Tom was getting all that the world could afford him at Whitley, and she seemed happy to rest on her Weymouth life without any guilt as to her son being far away.
Flora was thankful, for Tom was a moral boost when Spencer was gone, and he’d been especially helpful since the newest addition to the Padgett home. At that thought, she stood abruptly. When the painter protested, she gave a weak little curtsy.
“I’m afraid we should draw things to a close today,” she said. “I confess my worries don’t make me a good subject for a sitting, and I’m sure I’ll have a clearer mind tomorrow. Also, I must tend to my son, for I’m sure by now he will be wondering where his mother is and if she’s quite forgotten him.”
The painter gave a little sigh but seemed resigned to the way of things. He set his paintbrush aside and the easel as well. “If My Lady insists, then I cannot complain,” he said. “I will return in the morning, when the light will be better, and we shall finish what we started.”
“Thank you for understanding.”
Flora showed the painter to the footman and then slipped upstairs to the nursery, pushing open the door silently. She loved this little motherly pleasure—tiptoeing upstairs on feather feet to watch her little toddler playing or sleeping in blissful ignorance. James Spencer Maxwell looked so much like his father—dark hair and bright eyes—and it gave Flora great joy to watch his mannerisms that so often mimicked Spencer’s.
He was sitting on the floor when she came in, arranging blocks soberly under the nurse’s watchful eye. When Flora entered, he leapt up and toddled to his mother’s side. She knelt down, and he crawled into her lap, promptly weaving his fat fists into her hair.
“Yes, dear one. I’m here.” Flora looked up at the nurse. “I’ll finish putting him to bed, if you want to go down early.”
The nurse thanked her gratefully and curtsied before taking leave of the room. When she had gone, the little boy asked his mother, “Papa?”
Flora pushed the tears back. “Not now, Maxie, but soon. He’ll come home soon.”
She wanted to make it true by the saying. She gathered her little boy into her arms once again and then, after kissing him thrice on the forehead, sent him tottering towards his little bed. He crawled under his covers, pulling them up to his chin and wrapping his fat fists around the soft edge of the coverlet. His eyes, wide and bright, caught hers.
He didn’t have the patience yet to sit for an entire story, but when he asked for one he really meant a song. She began to hum a little lullaby she’d made up just after he was born.
“There was a little laddie,” she sang, watching a smile of contentment curl on his chubby cheeks. “He’d a fine strong heart and his name was Maxie. He travelled all the world in search of—” she paused, as she always did, to allow him to insert whatever animal he chose.
“Wion,” he said. Lions were always his first choice.
“He travelled all the world in search of a lion,” she sang on. “And though the world was grand, and the way was long, he brought that lion home to Whitley.”
The song had as many verses as Maxie could think of animals, but tonight he fell asleep after only four. Flora ran her finger gently along his forehead, smoothing down his wayward curls, and kissed him one last time before blowing out the candle and retreating into the hallway. She made her way downstairs, noting with surprise that the evening had already descended like a cloak around Whitley Hall. She was nearly downstairs when she heard a commotion in the hall two rooms over. There were voices … male voices.
She ran, not caring about propriety, and nearly bowled Tom over as she rounded the corner into the foyer. His eyes were bright.
“I know, Tom.” She circled the corner, and her heart instantly dropped. It wasn’t Spencer at all, but a tall man with dark hair and peaked smile. He looked road-weary and foreign. He was standing with his hat in his hand, and the butler was taking his cloak.
“My Lady,” he said politely, bending at the waist in a proper bow.
For a moment, Flora’s heart was in her throat. It was every navy wife’s fear that a man other than her husband would show up sombrely at her door with hat in hand. Then, before her heart could run away from her, she saw Spencer’s familiar form step out of the parlour.
She ran to him, not caring about propriety or Tom or the stranger, and hid herself in his arms. He smelled like the sea, and there was stubble on his chin, but he was her same Spencer.
“I’m home,” he said softly. “Max?”
“Asleep,” she said. “I can wake him …”
“No,” he interrupted her. “No, I only want you and me right now—I want to sit and look at you and take in the joy of this moment.”
She stepped back from him, a teasing smile curling the corners of her mouth. “For wanting solitary time, you certainly did bring company.”
Spencer looked at the tall gentleman as though he’d only just remembered he’d brought a guest, and gave a gusty laugh. “Of course! I’ve been lax. And you, boy,” he reached out and gave Tom a firm clap on the shoulders. “Go fetch the footman and ask if we can have tea and some stiff beverages brought into the library. There is much to discuss, and it will be made better by the simple comforts.”
Tom ran off happily to do as he was told, and Flora directed the gentlemen into the parlour, hanging on Spencer’s arm and not wanting to tear her eyes from his face. It was all there, just as she remembered—the laugh lines, the softness in his eyes; even the sadness she’d always known the war had given him. She would take the good and the bad together and love him as tenderly as he would allow.
The fire was stoked, the tea brought, and the sherry poured. Only then, when the excitement had settled, did Spencer think it time to introduce his mysterious guest.
“This is Henri Bouvier,” he said. “I will tell you more of him in a moment, but for now, know that he is a good friend I met while fighting across the channel.”
“You brought home a Frenchman from your war against the French,” Flora said with a twinkle in her eye. Lest she be misunderstood, she quickly followed her statement by adding, “As the resident Frenchwoman here, I approve.”
Henri gave a bow and seated himself again. In a thick French accent, he answered, “It is my pleasure indeed, Madame.”
“Will you keep me waiting?” Flora begged. “Tell me why you bring him here.”
“Only a bit longer,” Spencer answered. “You know how I like my surprises. First, I present this little gift to our Tom.” He pulled a small, tailored sword and belt out of his carrying case and laid it before the awestruck boy. “Tom, I will give this to you on two conditions: first, you allow me to teach you how to use it safely. If you are willing we will set about practicing tomorrow morning. Secondly, you must understand that swordplay is a necessary skill but not a thing of childhood games. Real men’s lives are lost on bloody blades, and if you are not ready to take the thing seriously, then I must put it away.”
Tom looked at the sword in awe, and then gazed up at Spencer with respect and honour in his young eyes. “I am willing to learn, and I will not play at the game.”
Spencer took out a hat and sash that were adorably small and tailored for a little boy. “These are for Max, when the little fellow awakes,” he said with a laugh.
“He will be pleased with his gift,” Flora said.
“And are you not wondering what I brought home for my little wife?” Spencer asked.
“I am not,” Flora answered quickly. “You brought home yourself, and that is gift enough.”
“Not in my mind,” Spencer said. “You are my queen, and I will spend the rest of my life convincing you that it is so. For now, you will have to satisfy yourself with the little gift I brought over from France. That is where Henri comes in.”
Flora looked at the mysterious man in wonderment. She was no closer to understanding Spencer’s game than she had been when he first appeared in her foyer. “Go on.”
Spencer waved a hand at Henri, and the man cleared his throat.
“Madame Padgett,” he said thickly. “You are my cousin, I believe.”
The statement sat in the room like a heavy weight. Flora blinked, checked the veracity with Spencer, and, noting his serious gaze, turned her attention back to the man. “How did you find Spencer?”
“He found me,” Henri said. “It seems your husband has been searching high and low for a sign of your French family. I myself narrowly escaped my home country during the war. We could not flee to England, and so we went to Italy. My mother and sister escaped with me, and they are still safely in Italy as we speak. They will be so happy to hear of Helene’s daughter—”
“You knew my mother?” Flora asked, breathless.
“Of course I did. I was just a boy back then,” he said, “but I remember her well. She was a dear caretaker to my family and was the kindest and sweetest of women. I remember once when I was not allowed to play with the older children she taught me a sketching game. We would each pick an object to draw and then see who could mimic it the most accurately—or at least the most creatively.”
Flora exchanged a glance with Tom, and the two smiled. Henri pressed on.
“Near the end, I was there. My family left only a few days before your father and mother. I held you, little Fleur, back when you were only a small baby. I did not think they would let a seven-year-old boy hold such a tender and precious thing, but Aunt Helene thought I could do it. She held my hands so I would know how to support you, and when you cried, she taught me to sing lullabies until you fell asleep. I am glad to see that such a tender babe has grown at last into a beautiful and caring woman.”
Flora could not see for the tears that blurred her eyes. “Tell me about her. Tell me what she looked like.”
“Small and dark, like a violet,” he said promptly, clearly having thought about this before. “Mama always said she was the wild one, but that she was also caring and treated all fragile things as though they had worth. I remember as a boy that she smelled like lavender. Even now, when I smell it, I think of her.”
“And my father?”
“I did not know him as long as I knew Aunt Helene, but when he came into the family I remember there being a stir—many whispered things behind closed doors; I know now that our family was worried about inviting an Englishman in. At last, he came and spoke to my mother. He said, ‘you love your sister, do you not? I want to make her happy for the rest of her life, will you agree to that at least?’”
Flora brought a handkerchief to her eyes, and then stood to her feet. “I want you to see something,” she said softly.
She took Spencer’s hand, and Henri and Tom followed behind. They made their way down the hall in the deepening darkness to the private sitting room overlooking the garden where Flora and Spencer took tea whenever he was back from his journeys. Over the mantel was one of the paintings Flora had discovered in the attic in Weymouth. It wasn’t one of the priceless masterpieces, just a portrait of Helene and another woman sitting patiently with their hands crossed and their pretty faces turned towards the painter.
“Does that look like your mother?” she asked softly.
Henri’s eyes filled with tears. “Yes. And that is Aunt Helene.”
“I am glad to have found it,” Flora said softly, “and now you must know that you are forever welcome at Whitley Hall, as is your mother and sister.” She turned to Tom with a gentle smile. “Will you show our guest to a room and call a valet for him?”
Henri bowed and took his leave, but as they walked away, Flora heard Tom ask playfully, “Have you ever heard of a game called cricket?”
She turned to Spencer, her eyes shining. “Thank you.”
He bent down and kissed her. “How I have missed those lips,” he said softly. “Are you happy, my love?”
“Because of your love,” she answered. “I have never been happier.”