“What think you of our Yorkshire weather, sir?” she laughed.
“Appalling,” he responded, grimacing. “I wonder you suffer the climate.”
“Then you should see it when it is truly winter and the drifts are six foot deep. The winds come from the open moors and we are often trapped in the house.”
“Why the deuce do you remain,” he said, joining her.
“’Tis our home,” she replied simply. “Where else would we go?”
“I came to check on the team,” he offered in explanation of his presence in the stable at so late an hour.
“And I to check on Badger,” she replied. “He likes not the thunder. I looked in on him in his loosebox, but he appeared quite calm, and then I saw the lantern through the window and I wondered who it might be.”
“You should have returned to the house. It’s cold and damp, you will catch a chill.”
“Pho! I’m not so poor spirited,” she laughingly scorned. “I’m far more resilient than that. I have had need to be.”
“Indeed you have, my dear,” he said earnestly, and she raised her eyes quickly to his face. He moved away as if the look discomfited him and there existed a silence between them, only the stamping of the horses’ hooves as they moved restlessly in the stalls invading the moment.
Suddenly turning and coming to stand before her, St. Ive asked quietly, “Do you still think of me as an intruder, Elizabeth? Am I still not welcome in your home?”
“Maxim…” she began, and would have turned away, but immediately his arm detained her, drawing her back to face him.
For a long moment his searching gaze devoured her face until, tilting back her chin with his free hand, he bowed his head and kissed her. As the gentle kiss turned more demanding and he drew her tightly to his chest, he became aware that her soft lips remained frozen beneath his and she held her delicate frame rigid within his embrace. The fear in her eyes cut through him and immediately he released her from his arms.
“Why?” she demanded, the instant she was set free, bewilderment heavy in her voice.
“Why?” he repeated softly, almost as if he spoke to himself, a slight smile on his lips, and after the briefest hesitation he said flippantly, “Because you have rain on your face, my dear.”
“Odious, detestable man,” she cried angrily, running out into the night, not even pausing to take up her lantern.
He stood watching as the dark downpour devoured her. Briefly, a lone flash of lightening lit her way across the cobles, momentarily silhouetting her against the large black bulk that was Briarfield, before she disappeared completely from his sight. He had no answer to her question. Without conscious thought, his body had acted of its own volition and he knew only his desire for the embrace. He was not prepared to examine his motives or indeed his emotions, fearful of what they might reveal. Donning his cloak and collecting both lanterns, St. Ive left the comfort of the stables, but despite the downpour, with head bowed, he hurried not. His steps appeared measured and, deep in thought, he stood briefly outside the house before finally entering.
* * * * *