Esther watched Jacob approach the party, which was being held under the ancient oak trees on the edge of fields bare from the harvest. His hair was blown about his face by the light breeze, though his clothes were as precise as he was. He smiled at her for a long moment before she broke his gaze, turning her face into the sun.
A furious, whispered exchange with Beatrice confirmed he was welcome here, and moreover, Beatrice expected her sister-in-law to make peace with the man who was their neighbor and friend, no matter he had lost his mind.
Peace had not followed as the night wore on. Like a medieval siege engine, its gears stretching the long throwing beam back and back until it bowed with tension, Esther felt her nerves thin, growing more sensitive to every shift Jacob made, every word he spoke.
The children of the estate coaxed her into a game of blind man’s bluff, calling out petty threats as she spread her hand wide, catching a sleeve, and knowing, before he spoke, before her hand travelled up to his shoulder even, she was touching Jacob. The scent of him and the laugh, which hitched from exertions of the game gave him away, and she dropped her fingers as though they had been scorched. She ripped up the blindfold and pushed it into his hands, her cane biting into the turf as she rushed back to the safety of her family.
Later he joined the group sitting under the shade, exchanging gossip about free traders and frustrated revenue officers riding up and down the coast. It wasn’t personal talk, nor was it directed to her, but she made a great show of ignoring him even as she cocked an ear toward his low-pitched voice, weaving dreams no one could guess at.
The effort of appearing at ease in his presence for an entire evening must have shown because Beatrice, laying out food for the servants and the family, shook her head in the fading light. “For the love of heaven, don’t scowl so, Esther. He is not a six-headed monster. I’ve half a mind—”
Then she jerked to a stop, blinked, and turned abruptly to the table, groaning with food.
“Half a mind to what?” Esther prodded.
“Nothing, dear. Nothing at all.” Beatrice lifted her hand, counting out the dishes, her finger tapping the air.
“Drat,” she declared. “I’ve forgotten a pie, and it was to be a surprise for Henry.”
“He has a favorite?”
Beatrice nodded with assurance. “He does.” She cast a look at the house in the distance--the length of two long fields--and wiped her hands on her apron, smiling when Jacob wandered over with his plate.
“Be a dear, Esther, and fetch it for me?” Beatrice asked over her shoulder, dishing up a wedge of currant cake with a great deal of fuss and bother.
Esther’s brows wrinkled and her lips parted. Then she saw Jacob’s penetrating gaze. How dare he know her so well? Esther spoke sharply, “Shall I carry it back balanced on the head of my cane?”
Beatrice turned, eyes wide and begging for pardon. “Mr Thackery will carry it for you if you show him where it is, won’t you Mr Thackery?”
Beatrice turned towards Jacob, and Esther’s glare hit her sister-in-law between the shoulder blades. Jacob saw her dismay and his eyes lit, laughing at something Esther didn’t find funny at all.
“Mr Thackery is about to eat,” Esther interjected. “I can ask Henry to fetch it. It’s his pie.” When her gaze drifted to her brother, she found him leaned up against a tree trunk, his ankles crossed and little Charles asleep on his chest.
“It would be cruel to break that up, don’t you think?” Jacob asked, stepping around the table. Esther gave him an acid-sweet smile. Impossible man. She didn’t need reminders on thoughtfulness and manners from Jacob Thackery.
“Cruel to make you walk all that way, too,” she replied.
“On account of my advanced age?”
She wanted to scream. This was what came of trading barbs with someone who knew exactly what you meant to say. Her taunts rammed home, but she was reminded, always, of how well he knew her.
Unable to look away she asked, “Where is it, Beatrice? The pie.”
“Oh,” Bea exclaimed, carving a ham in a way Esther found vaguely suspect. She appeared so terribly busy. “I left it cooling on the slab in the larder. You’ll be back in a trice.”
Jacob offered his arm. Though it would be nice to take it, given the uneven verge between the fields which had laid her out on more than one occasion, she gripped the handle of her cane and began walking away.
It was too late for them, she thought, the sounds of Papa laughing and the tinny melodies of village musicians fading like the setting sun. Jacob had had his chance, and she had made her choice. It’d been settled for years, despite this sudden urgency he had to dredge it up once more.
She stumbled over a hidden root and his steadying hand reached for her. She straightened, breath catching at the intent look in his eyes. Was he going to propose again? Was he going to pretend indifference and speak about the weather? Was he going to say nothing?
The last, it seemed, as the silence stretched and stretched. She shook free when they entered the house, silence pressing in from every corner.
In a trice Esther would be enveloped by a lively harvest party beyond the reach of Jacob’s persuasions. His hands would be too full of baked goods to catch her in an embrace. The thought of it warmed her cheeks and she sped up to the open larder door. As she crossed the threshold, she heard a faint scrape behind them.
To find out what happens in the larder,
enjoy The Facts of the Case, a bonus novelette included in The Sweet Rowan.