“So, how did you know to tie a tourniquet?” The doctor asked, looking at me side-eyed. I sighed.
“Someone who I thought I could trust taught me,” I said. The doctor raised an eyebrow at me but mercifully didn’t say anything else. He replaced the bandage, which had quickly soaked through with blood, and tied it around my arm. After finishing cleaning me up, he packed up his bag.
“Make sure you rest. You have already lost so much blood. I don’t want to have to amputate,” he said, and I nodded. The doctor turned and walked out of the door, closing it behind him. I sighed, alone in the room, then swung my legs off the bed and walked over to the window. I didn’t remember much of what happened after the carriage accident. But, somehow my horse made her way over here, and I was rescued by these people.
“Uncle Nathan!” A voice caught my attention and I watched as a young boy ran up to the man who had rescued me from the lake. The boy was grinning as Nathan, presumably, swung him up, and the two walked over to the other building together.
I closed my eyes as a tremor worked its way through me. How could I ever be truly free? Charles had made sure that I was never to be seen again, so I guess he had won. I was tired of my life as a mercenary. I wanted something better. A new life, one where I could start fresh, and nobody would ever be the wiser.
The old house creaked as I walked slowly down the stairs. It had been a week since I’d been rescued by these people, and I’d spent the time recovering from my wound. But it was now time to meet my generous benefactors in the flesh.
Elizabeth, as she had told me to call her, had given me a light blue gown, a summery dress that she claimed offset my gray eyes. It had been the first time I’d ever worn a dress.
It was worse than anything I imagined.
There was no freedom with my legs, there was fabric constricting my chest, and I hated it so much. My only comfort was that I could keep a blade strapped to my thigh, and it wouldn’t stand out at all. I must have had a scowl on my face as I walked down the stairs because Sam flinched a little when he looked at me. I quickly schooled my features into a soft smile.
“Good afternoon, Sam,” I said. He bobbed his head in a tiny bow, but I could see the hesitation in his eyes. I walked through the main foyer and into the dining room. Elizabeth was sitting at the table, reading a newspaper. Once she saw me, she brightened, putting it to the side.
“Ah, Elise. How are you?” she asked. I forced a smile.
“Well, thank you, Elizabeth,” I replied. She smiled gently at me.
“Can I get you anything to drink? To eat?” she asked, gesturing to the small spread in front of her. I sat down next to her.
“I’ll have some-” I started, but someone ran into the room and jumped on Elizabeth before she could react. I blinked and saw the young boy from earlier. Elizabeth laughed and gently pushed the young boy away.
“Joseph, this is Elise. Elise, Joseph. Or Joe, as we fondly call him,” she introduced. Joe looked at me with a shy smile. He had strawberry blonde hair and a cowlick that I could tell annoyed Elizabeth very much. His bright blue eyes bored into mine.
“We pulled you from the lake,” he said. I smiled, a real one this time.
“And I cannot thank you enough, young man. You saved me,” I whispered, bopping him on the nose. He giggled and blushed, then grabbed a scone from the dish and ran off to wherever he’d come from. I looked at Elizabeth, and we burst out laughing.
“So, Elise. What is it that you...you know, do?” she said after a couple of minutes filled with the sound of my chewing. I swallowed a piece of my scone as it suddenly tasted like ash. Of course, she would ask a young woman by herself what she did.
Damn the social constraints of women in the world.
“I, ah,” I started, looking around the room for some help, “am a governess,” I said, yanking the profession right out of my brain. Elizabeth looked as surprised as I felt.
“Really?” she asked admiringly. I nodded. I’d burn in hell for all these lies, but my entire life was a lie, so I supposed it all canceled out.
“Really what?” A deep voice cut off whatever response I was going to have. Like, ‘no, I’m not a governess, I’m a murdering mercenary from the East India company whose boss tried to kill her, and oh yeah, also, I disguised myself as a man the entire time. Pass the butter, won’t you?’
I swallowed that response and turned, expecting Sam. Instead, I got my first up-close glimpse of the man who pulled me from the lake.
Nathan had chocolatey brown eyes that sat in a tanned face. His dark brown hair was curled at the nape of his neck, touseled as if he had just clambered out of bed. I opened my mouth to respond but found I had no words. Nathan looked at me, amused. After a slight pause, Elizabeth broke into our slightly awkward staring contest with a laugh. My ears burned as I looked away. I had entirely forgotten she was there.
“Elise is a governess, Nathan,” she said excitedly. Nathan walked around the table and pulled out the chair right across from me.
“Is that so?” he murmured, looking as if he didn’t believe that. Quite frankly, neither did I. I smiled, one so brittle, I thought it might fall onto my plate.
“I’ve been a governess for fourteen years,” I replied. Governess, mercenary; tomato tomahto. Nathan pulled a biscuit onto his plate and slathered it with butter, drawing his mother into a conversation as I watched, nodded along at the right moments, and wondered how the hell my life had come to this.
Finally, Nathan turned to me. “Did you hear?” he asked. I shook my head, stupified.
“I’ve been in my room for the past couple of days. How would I have heard anything?” I replied. He smiled faintly, then pushed the newspaper toward me. I unfolded it and read the title.
Matthew White, feared East India Company Mercenary, was found dead in a freak carriage accident.
My heart stuttered. I was well and truly dead. Matt was no more. A small sob escaped me and Nathan misinterpreted it.
“D-did he kill your family?” he asked cautiously. I nodded, wiping furiously at my face. In a sense, Matt did cause the death of my parents. He represented the final break that caused them to die.
“Good,” I said, gesturing to the newspaper. “He caused a lot of tragedy,” I tacked on. And then I fled. Yes, coward choice, but I muttered an excuse and made my way out of that room as fast as I could.
The property was absolutely stunning. The lake that I had become very intimately acquainted with was the entire left border of their estate, with a small tributary running down the west side of the estate and the driveway winding down to the town. Woods covered the entire back of the estate and that’s where I found myself traipsing through as I escaped the dining room.
In the dappled sunlight amid the boughs and strong risen roots, I can feel my spirit weave itself into nature as if for this time I am one with this place and all the life that is here. With every breath, I could feel my body calming down. My heart thumping slower. My-
I whirled around, hand instantly going to my knife under my skirts. I stopped, seeing Nathan’s wary face, and blew out a breath, loose strands of my hair fluttering in my face.
“You startled me,” I said for lack of anything better to say. He at least had the grace to look sheepish as he walked over to me. We stood side by side, silently staring into the woods, not really seeing anything but feeling each other’s presence.
“You’re unlike everyone else, Elise…” he said, pausing meaningfully. Even I, with my limited social skills, understood what he was saying.
“Clément. Elise Clément,” I replied. We stood silently for another agonizingly long moment before he spoke again.
“You’re a governess, right? Would you consider working for us? Joseph is with us for the summer and his father, my brother, wants us to help groom him into the nobleman he soon will become,” he asked, turning to face me for the first time. I inhaled deeply. What was one more lie atop my lifetime of lies? Charles would never think to find me like this. For that matter, no one would. I could be someone new. Someone different.
Something completely and utterly mine.
I turned to Nathan and looked into his eyes, searching for honesty, for truth, for...a reason to say yes. I didn’t need to find it. It was already on his face.
“Yes,” I breathed.
The weeks passed in a haze of long days and nights. I grew to love Joseph with his innocent questions, his love for learning, and his...well his handsome uncle. Nathan and I grew closer than I ever thought I could with someone.
For the first time in my life, I let my guard down. I let the barriers around my heart down. I let myself live, I let myself laugh, and I let myself, love.
June and July passed in a sweet daze, and before I knew it, August let itself into the door. One day, after Joseph and I had learned how to ride a horse while reading a book simultaneously - a skill I didn’t know I needed until I found a book I loved, I found myself walking with Nathan along the lakeshore.
My skirts had been traded for trousers that I rolled the cuffs up a little so that I could walk barefoot along the lake. For his part, Nathan had only looked a little scandalized when he’d seen me. But he had grown so used to my quirks by now, he didn’t care anymore.
“...and then we climbed that tree and stayed in it until Elizabeth called us for dinner,” Nathan was saying, laughing a little as he recounted a story from when he and his brother had escaped from a mad dog. I chuckled.
“You were quite the adventurous kid,” I remarked as we turned onto the short pier. Our footsteps echoed on the wood as we walked to the railed edge. We peered down into the water, trying to spot any fish.
“What about you? Tell me something from your childhood,” he asked. I turned around and leaned back against the railing, digging through my memories. I laughed, recalling one in particular.
“Ah, well. When I was seven or eight, my parents built this small well at the edge of our property. And I would always go down to that well and force myself to haul a bucket of water to get stronger. But my friends would always tease me...ah,” My smile faded as I remembered the ending to this particular memory. I had forgotten it until now.
“And?” Nathan prompted gently. I sighed, closing my eyes as if that would make the sting of the memory any less painful.
“One of the schoolboys was determined to bully me relentlessly. One day as I was unsuccessfully trying to haul the bucket up, he and his friends came up to me and shoved me in. It was a short well but it had never felt so big as it had at that moment. They laughed down at me as I screamed for them to help me and pulled the rope up so that I couldn’t get up. I must have been there for an hour before my father came to get water and saw me at the bottom. I...never forgave that boy. But he was killed that winter when he fell into the frozen lake after being dared to go onto it,” I finished, my voice rasping.
I felt the wood of the pier creak and opened my eyes to see Nathan in front of me, chocolate eyes swimming with emotion.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. I shrugged.
“It happened a long time ago,” I said. He shook his head.
“Nevertheless, I’m sorry,” he repeated. I smiled sadly.
“I have a riddle for you,” he suddenly said, changing the subject. He took my hand and traced a line down the middle of my palm. I suppressed a shiver even though the air was warm. “This is a river. It’s too wide to jump over, too deep to wade across, and too fast to swim across. There’s a bunny stuck on one bank. How does it cross?” I blinked. What the hell? Where had this come from?
I tried to guess how the damn bunny crossed the river for about ten minutes, before turning to him with a frustrated sigh.
“Well? How does it?” I asked. He shrugged.
“I don’t have any idea. Nor do I care. I just wanted to hold your hand,” he said. I opened my mouth, then closed it. A blush crept up my neck. Well, then.
He took a step closer and I tilted my head up. Our faces were barely an inch apart. His hand came up to cup my cheek, callused against the smoothness of my skin.
“Elise,” he breathed, and my eyes fluttered close. Until I felt the wood give way behind me. I muttered a curse so filthy, Nathan reared back and blinked. With a crack, I fell backward into the lake.
The sudden coldness of the water was a shock to my flushed skin, but it wasn’t that deep, so I pushed off the bottom and emerged, spluttering, to Nathan’s loud laughter. He was doubled over, a fresh peal emerging from him as I scowled at him. Suddenly, something flopped into my eyes. I reached out and almost leaped out of my skin as it moved. I shrieked as I flung it away, only then realizing it was a piece of lakeweed. I blushed, embarrassed, but Nathan kept laughing. I made my way over to the pier and he reached his hand down to help me up.
I yanked him down instead, and he was already kneeling, so he plunged into the water beside me, drenching me all over again. He emerged, indignant.
“Seriously?” he spluttered. I stuck my tongue out at him.
“Jerk,” I retorted. He laughed then, a deep rumble that came from his chest.
“Ah, Elise,” he said to himself, then tugged me closer to him and pressed his lips to mine, and we floated there until the sky opened up and drenched us all over again. Laughing, we clambered out of the lake and ran into the house, dripping water all over the foyer much to Sam’s chagrin. The poor man had just wiped down the floor.
“Elise, Elise! My father is coming tonight!” Joseph cried, running into my room, Sam right on his heels, a couple of weeks after the memorable lake incident. I looked up from my writing desk, startled. I stood up and almost fell right over with the force of Joe’s hug.
“Oh, that’s wonderful, Joe. I’m so very excited to meet him,” I replied, hugging him back. Sam wheezed, a hand on his side.
“Master...Joe...Wh...What..have...we..talked...a...about...You...can’t...r..run...into he...her...rooms,” he panted. I laughed, ruffling Joe’s hair.
“Sam’s right, Joe, you can’t run into my rooms unannounced, but no harm done. Sam, why don’t you go take a break. I can supervise Joseph from here,” I said kindly. Sam looked at me, relieved, then disappeared out of my room. I turned to my little student and sat down, hoisting him onto my lap.
“He’s going to love you,” Joe promised, practically bouncing on my knees. I smiled, tugging his hair.
“I’m counting on it,” I replied. We stayed in my room for the rest of the day, talking and laughing together. Finally, as the sun sunk below the lake, Nathan knocked on my door and told us his brother was here. With a squeal, Joseph raced out the door and I could hear his footsteps down the stairs.
We looked at each other, amused. Nathan held out his arm.
“You ready?” he asked. I stood with a smile.
“Of course,” I replied. We walked down the stairs and I heard a booming voice from the main foyer. We entered the room and my gaze fell onto the other man in the room. Nathan’s brother and Joseph’s father. He wasn't facing me, and as he turned around, my smile slipped. The man had bright blue eyes, the same that his son had, eyes that I should have recognized after fourteen years of staring into them. His short brown hair was slightly longer than it had been when I had last seen him, and it was falling into his face.
Nathan Williams was the brother of my former East India Company employer.
He turned to me with a friendly smile.
"Ah, you must be Elise," he said, offering his hand to me.