Deeper Than Desire
An exclusive short story extra to For Your Arms Only
The first time Thomas Webb laid eyes on Callandra Turner, he knew. She was seventeen years old, all glowing peach skin and glossy black curls, shrieking with laughter as she and her sister chased the family's goat, which had escaped his pen and was romping in the garden. She was the most beautiful creature Tom had ever seen. It was no bolt of lightning or moment of lightheadedness, just a striking certainty that he would never be the same, nor look at another woman without comparing her—unfavorably—to Miss Turner.
Unfortunately, he knew just as certainly that he had no chance of winning her.
He was twenty-three, and had been a soldier for almost seven years. He had no other trade or profession, and, until that moment, he had expected he would be a soldier until a French cannonball or old age claimed him. Frankly, Tom didn't really care which it was; his life was pleasant enough, nothing grand. But as he watched her, trying to hold her skirts out of the mud as she chased the goat around a row of cabbages, Tom felt as though he might as well have been already dead…until now.
"There're my girls," cried his companion, George Turner, throwing open the gate. Turner had just been made sergeant of their unit, and invited Tom to come home with him on furlough. Since all the Webbs were dead or flung to the distant corners of the country, Tom had accepted.
"Papa," cried both girls, rushing to be swallowed up in his embrace. The goat took advantage of the moment to charge out the gate, right toward Tom. Without thinking he lunged and grabbed the frayed rope around the beast's neck.
"Oh! Thank you, sir!" The other daughter, tall and gangly, noticed him then. "Billy chewed right through that rope, wicked old thing, and would have trotted straight down to Mr. Browne's garden to eat the radishes."
Turner laughed, an arm around each girl. "Serves him right! Browne is a miserly old rabbit."
"But Papa, he threatened to shoot Billy if Billy ever ate his garden again," said the girl, The One, splashes of soft pink brightening her cheeks.
"Bugger him if he shoots at my goat," said Turner genially, and behind his back the girls shared a worried glance. He held out one hand toward Tom. "I've brought someone home to meet you—he wouldn't be kept away once he heard I had two pretty girls waiting for me here! Girls, Thomas Webb. Webb, my daughters Callie and Cressida."
Callie, the beauty, blushed and bobbed a curtsey. Cressida, already tall enough to look him in the face even though Tom later learned she wasn't quite fifteen, grinned at him. Tom grinned back, wishing the sergeant hadn't made it seem he'd been interested in them; he'd barely known Turner had daughters, and somehow he'd thought they were markedly younger than this. "A pleasure to make your acquaintances," he said, jerking off his cap and bowing awkwardly as he tried to keep the goat from nibbling at his coat buttons.
Turner laughed and waved him inside the gate. "I trust there's dinner in the house," he said with a wink at his taller daughter.
"Not yet, but once Granny knows you're here, there soon will be!" Cressida scampered off through the garden, calling out, "Granny! Granny, Papa's come home!" A thin, older woman came out of the cottage, wiping her hands on her apron, and George Turner strode toward her, arms outstretched.
"Thank you, sir." Callie Turner looked up at him with sparkling eyes the color of rich coffee and reached for the goat's rope. "He gives us ever so much trouble when he gets loose."
"Aye, he's got a troublesome look about him." She flashed him a grateful smile, and Tom felt his chest seize up, as if he had plunged into a cold river and could hardly breathe. It was an angel's smile, he thought. He handed her the rope, and with a tug she led the goat back inside the confining pen. Tom followed, closing the gate behind him and trying to keep his eyes off her slender figure.
That was the beginning of the best three weeks of his life. Tom was almost afraid to look at her, for fear his attraction and wonder would show on his face. Both girls and their grandmother made him feel at home and welcome, even if Turner often seemed amused by their efforts. And when he and Turner left, Tom carried the image of Callie smiling and waving at him in his heart. Over a year later, when they received another brief furlough, Turner asked Tom if he'd like to come to Portsmouth again. Tom said yes at once. Too quickly, perhaps, but Turner just laughed in his jovial way and off they went.
This time Tom remembered that she preferred the quieter tasks about the house, and made himself useful from the start. When she went to weed the garden, Tom offered to chop wood. When she fed the animals, he offered to clean out the small shed where the goat and the chickens lived. If she were mending in the sitting room, he was more than willing to repair the broken shutter. And while they worked, they talked—of sights he had seen in the army, of the curious characters in Portsmouth, of his fondness for cricket and her fascination with novels, despite her grandmother's admonishments that too much reading harmed the brain.
"Then what about Isaac Newton?" Tom was on one knee, an upside down chair in front of him. One leg had come loose and he had pulled it off to repair it properly. "He must have read a hundred books on astronomy and such."
Callie laughed, looking up from her sewing. "Not that sort of reading. Granny allows that reading the Bible couldn't impair the brain, either."
Tom pulled a face. "Reading is reading, seems to me."
"Oh no, most definitely not." She sighed, her hands falling idle in her lap as she gazed out the window. "But somehow it takes so much more work to read Fordyce's Sermons instead of The Adventures of David Simple."
He chuckled. "Fordyce! That will make your brain hurt."
"Have you read David Simple?"
"What a life," she said almost wistfully. "To be so noble and good, and find such happiness at the end."
"It would be better to find happiness before the end," Tom remarked, working the wobbly chair leg back into position. "'Tis easier to enjoy it, if you're not dead."
She burst out laughing. Tom looked at her and grinned; it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds when she laughed. "You're right—of course, that's what I meant! It was the end of the book, though; if David had not found happiness by then, we would never know how it turned out." She picked up her mending once again. "But that is the lovely thing about novels. No matter how dreadful things may seem, it always comes out right in the end."
She made a face at him. "Oh! I only like novels where it comes out well in the end, like Tom Jones or Pamela, no matter how much harm is done to my brain."
"It can't possibly do harm to like seeing things come out right and happy in the end," he assured her. "Just like this chair." He righted the chair and gave it a hard shake. The once-wobbly leg was tight again, and he knocked his knuckles on the seat. "There. It won't upend anyone now."
"Thank you, Tom," she said with a smile, her eyes shining at him. "I don't know what we would do without you." And at moments like that, Tom felt himself the equal of any king.
Even more than that, he began to hope. With no family to support, he had some funds saved up. Never much addicted to dice, Tom had accumulated a tidy little sum, and kept it safe in the four percents. He wasn't rich, but he began to feel that he might be an acceptable son-in-law to Sergeant Turner. He had even gone so far as to begin crafting a little speech, declaring his affections and asking permission to court her, when Turner cut out his heart with one careless sentence.
"Julian Phillips has his eye on my girl," Turner said one night as they smoked outside the little house after dinner.
Tom nearly choked on a draw from his pipe. "Does he?" he managed to say over a cough. Julian Phillips was an older man, a prosperous haberdasher who was considered a good catch in Portsmouth. But he had cold eyes, and Tom prayed with all his might that it wasn't Callie he wanted. Cressida was only sixteen, and nowhere near the beauty her sister was, but she could stand up for herself. He didn't mean to sacrifice Cressida, but Callie was such a gentle creature…
"Callie could hardly do better," said Turner with satisfaction, driving a stake through his hopes. "She's a pretty girl, like her mother was, and I knew she'd make me proud." He glanced at Tom, his eyes glittering in the darkness. "She'll make a good wife, don't you think?"
Tom took his time replying, fiddling with his pipe. "Phillips has a bad reputation," he muttered. "Cold. Hard."
Turner shrugged it off. "He can afford to be."
Money. Always money with Turner. Tom closed his eyes, thinking of his savings and calculating the value. "How much?"
The sergeant didn't even pretend not to understand. "Two hundred pounds. Can you credit that? A man would be a fool not to take that offer."
"Is that how much you want for her, then?" His heart thumped hard and slow, like the tolling of a bell inside his chest. He could afford two hundred pounds, barely. Even if Callie Turner didn't care for him the way he cared for her, at least she liked him, and he would be a damn sight kinder husband than Phillips, who was rumored to have odd predilections. Tom heard all kinds of things while running errands in town.
"Webb, Webb," said Turner with a condescending smile. "We both know it's more than that. Phillips has a home, right here in Portsmouth. He's got a good business. He's not off chasing the French army here and there. He's got a bit of…" Turner gestured vaguely with one hand. "Breeding."
Unlike you. Tom heard the unspoken warning. "Has she agreed?"
"She will. She knows her duty."
"But what if she received another proposal?" Tom's palms were sweating. "What if someone else—?"
This time Turner looked at him, something dangerous in his eyes. Tom gazed back. The tolling of his heart seemed to ring in his ears with a lost, lonely echo. "It wouldn't matter at all, Webb," said Turner quietly. "I've already told Phillips yes."
Within a fortnight the deed was done. Tom hung back at the church, feeling a little bit of his soul being gouged out and charred before his eyes as Julian Phillips took Callie's hand and recited his vow. Phillips smiled at her with a cool, formal smile that never reached his eyes, but Tom thought the bride was a bit too nervous to notice it. When the service was finally concluded, George Turner swept in at once to shake Phillips's hand and talk to him. Mrs. Turner and Cressida embraced Callie before turning to offer their felicitations to Phillips. Callie was left alone for a moment, looking young and slightly dazed as she twisted the new ring on her finger.
Tom stepped up to her, clearing his throat. "I wish you great happiness," he murmured. He did. He also hoped like hell that he was wrong about Phillips. Or, alternatively, that the scoundrel dropped dead before dinner tonight.
She looked up at him with those dark eyes that had bewitched him from the moment he first saw her. "Oh Tom," she whispered. "I wish—I wish—"
The air seemed to solidify around him. Tom was a reasonable man, not inclined to make trouble for himself or anyone else, especially not in a church. But at that moment, as she looked up at him with a frightened tinge of longing in her gaze, Tom almost reached out to grab her hand and run—away from Phillips and Turner and everyone else who would crush her quiet, sensitive spirit, and damn the consequences. God help him, if she should finish that sentence and say that she wished it were his ring she wore…
"There's the lovely bride!" boomed Turner's voice, shattering the spell. "Callie my girl, you never looked prettier!"
She blushed and flashed a nervous smile at her father. Turner clapped one hand on Tom's shoulder. "Come to kiss the bride, eh, Webb?"
Now he felt his own face warm. Stiffly he leaned forward and brushed his lips, ever so lightly, over her cheek. She smelled like lavender and mint, and he lingered a second to breathe her in, just this once.
"Thank you," she whispered, for his ears only.
Then Phillips was taking her hand possessively, leading her out of the church. Turner, having done his worst and now more cheerful than ever, followed with his mother and Cressida. Tom stood where she had left him until the church door closed behind them, and he was left alone.
Callandra Phillips often wondered what her life might have been like if she hadn't married the wrong man.
She hadn't known he was the wrong man at the time. Julian Phillips was a prosperous merchant in Portsmouth, older and well respected in town, and she was a poor soldier's daughter; no one was more surprised than Callie when he began to pay her attention. The first time he called on her family, he praised the biscuits she'd made for tea. The second time he said she was a beauty, and smiled patiently at her blush. The third time he spoke to her father, then pressed a cool kiss to her cheek. Within a month of that first visit, she was standing beside him in the church.
But not long after that wedding day, she began to suspect he was the wrong man. Callie hadn't thought he loved her, nor did she expect it. Her father had bluntly explained to her that they were poor, and Mr. Phillips was not. If something should happen to Papa while off fighting Napoleon, Mrs. Julian Phillips would be well able to take care of her grandmother and younger sister, while Miss Callandra Turner would not. The Turners needed to look after each other, Papa had reminded her, and here she could do it in style and comfort. Marrying well was what every girl should aspire to, and now one of the wealthiest men in town wanted her. Papa patted her shoulder and declared himself proud of her, for having snared such a husband. Callie didn't quite have the strength of will to defy him. Besides, no one else had offered to marry her.
Only when Papa left did real doubt form in Callie's mind. With Papa went Tom Webb, a mate of his from the infantry who often came to spend his furloughs with the Turner family. Tom was tall and solid, a good man who never failed to make himself helpful in some way. He was kind and thoughtful, and Callie liked him a great deal. He was so easy to talk to; for a while she had even suspected that he might have taken a fancy to her, and she had begun to imagine herself falling in love with him, too, but then Mr. Phillips began calling and Tom never said a word. He and Papa were due back at their regiment soon, and Callie had come to see them off as always. But as the men were shouldering their gear, saying their final farewells before walking off down the lane, Tom leaned close to her.
"Be careful around Phillips," he murmured, adjusting a strap on his knapsack. The two of them were momentarily alone. Papa was saying goodbye to Cressida and Granny in his usual boisterous way, roaring with laughter even as Granny dabbed her eyes with a corner of her apron.
Callie looked up at him in surprise. "Why? He is my husband."
His face flushed a ruddy red as he concentrated on buckling the strap. "Aye. But in your shoes, I'd invite my grandmother and sister to live with me."
Her eyes opened wide. Just the other day she had suggested that, thinking it would ease her grandmother's life and provide her sister with a more advantageous situation to meet other men. Cressida was sixteen now, tall and pretty. But Mr. Phillips had said no, he wanted only one woman in his house. He refused her kindly but firmly, and Callie didn't think she should ask again.
At her silence, Tom looked at her. His eyes were a clear, light green, she realized. Like glass. "Ask him again," he said, almost inaudibly.
Dumbly, Callie found herself nodding. Papa was striding to them to pull her close one last time, pinching her cheek and calling her his fine, elegant daughter, and Tom turned away. She stood beside her sister and grandmother and waved at the two men as they headed off, back to war. Papa swung his cap heartily, then turned around and led the way. Tom Webb, though, looked back longer—at her, she realized. Callie summoned a smile and waved at him. Finally he grinned back, lifting one hand before vanishing around the turn of the hedge with her father.
"What did Tom say to you?" Cressida asked her as they walked back to the house.
"What do you mean?" Callie glanced self-consciously over her shoulder, after the departed soldiers.
"He looked as though he had something on his mind, and he bade you farewell so quietly." Cressida shrugged. "I just wondered."
"It was nothing," she murmured. "Nothing at all."
But she wasn't sure.
She thought about Tom's remarks for several days, and finally decided it would only drive her mad. Ever since he had planted that seed in her mind, she found herself more conscious than ever of her husband's inscrutable gaze on her in the evenings. It made her skin prickle and her mind run alarmingly. Mr. Phillips had been kind to her so far. They were still practically strangers, and she was very conscious of the honor he had done her in marrying her. Callie wanted to be a good wife, and Tom Webb's vague warning was getting in the way of her ability to think as highly of him as a wife should.
But after her father and his friend had left, Mr. Phillips's manner changed. It was slight at first; he insisted she take a servant with her whenever she went out, for protection. Callie, who had walked alone all over Portsmouth before her marriage, gave in gracefully, even though her sister laughed at the servant who had to trail after them in the market. Not until Julian reprimanded her for spending so much time at the lending library did she realized the man might also be keeping an eye on her.
When she asked him about it, her husband merely smiled. "Any man with a beautiful young wife would be protective of her."
"But at the lending library!" she said with a small laugh, trying to make light of it. "There's no danger there."
He kept smiling, but with a contemplative look that somehow made her stop smiling. "If one knew where the danger lay, it would be easy enough to avoid, don't you think? I prefer to be prepared at all times."
She frowned. "I suppose…"
"You must trust me in this," he said. "You are my wife, mine to command."
"Of course," Callie murmured, wishing he hadn't put it quite that way but reminded once more of her father's words about duty and obligation. "I do want to please you, sir."
He looked at her for a long minute. "Do you really?" he murmured. "I wondered…"
"Of course I do," she protested.
This time his smile was undeniably chilly, as was the tone of his reply. "Good."
When he came to bed that night, he brought a length of cord. It was a red silk cord that he sold in his dry goods shop, something a lady might use in trimming a fancy gown. "Hold out your hands," he said to her. When Callie complied, he looped the cord around her wrists just tightly enough to hold her hands together.
"Why?" she asked nervously.
He was staring at the cord, like a line of blood around her wrists. "It pleases me," he said in a low voice. "Now turn around."
When it was over, he untied her hands, washed himself, and got into bed. Uncertainly, Callie did the same, blowing out the candles. "Julian," she whispered, "why did you do that?"
He rolled over and patted her hand. The gesture surprised her, since he wasn't usually affectionate. "It pleased me," was all he said.
Callie didn't know what to make of that. How could it please her husband to tie her hands before making love to her? He had made love to her before, but properly, with her on her back and the candles blown out; not like this. Perhaps it was just to test how devoted she was. Granny had told her some men had strange tastes, and she must endure it as best she could if Mr. Phillips should prove one of those. She told herself not to be so missish; he hadn't hurt her, and she was supposed to obey her husband. She pushed aside the whisper of doubt that echoed in her mind and went to sleep.
But that was only the start.
From then on he usually brought something into the bedroom when he wanted to make love to her. He never seemed to care if she touched him or not, or what she might like in bed. He did caress her as if he wanted her to have some pleasure, but often Callie was so uncomfortable or embarrassed by what he did, she couldn't feel anything. She began to hate the approach of evening, and one night refused to let him bind her arms. The last time he'd done that, it left bruises up and down her arms, and she'd had to wear long sleeves for a fortnight.
His face darkened. "Raise your arms," he said in hard, quiet voice.
Callie shivered at his expression but persisted. "Can't I please you any other way? Why must you always tie my hands? Why don't you ever want me to touch you?"
He raised one hand to her cheek, then let it slide slowly down her neck. His thumb rested in feathery-light menace on her pulse, now pounding in alarm. "Because this pleases me," he whispered. "Raise your arms, wife."
And she did. She had no choice. If he cast her off, she would have to go home in disgrace, to a family that couldn't really afford to have her back. Papa would be furious; she had a suspicion he had borrowed money from Julian and probably hoped never to have to repay it. And even worse, she knew her husband was paying the lease on the house her family lived in. Her entire family's well-being depended on her marriage. Callie felt herself caught in a trap, and wished she had had the sense to see the darker side of Julian before it was too late.
He never made love to her again without binding her. He favored red scarves, and he never blew out the lamps, leaving Callie feeling exposed and helpless. There was no pleasure in it for her, but he didn't seem to care. And as months and then years passed, it became harder and harder for her to care, either.
Eventually, the war ended; Napoleon was forced into exile. Portsmouth was in tumult, wild with joy at the end of the wars, and thronged with soldiers and sailors returning to England. Papa was coming home, with Tom Webb once more beside him.
They arrived the day after the funeral. Julian had died suddenly, complaining of severe indigestion one night at dinner, then going to bed and never waking up. The doctor said his heart had seized and stopped in the night. Callie went to the graveyard a day later, since propriety had kept her from the burial, and when she looked up from the grave, there was Tom Webb standing across from her.
For a moment she simply stared, fearing she had imagined him. She was glad to see him, but even that feeling was muted. Perhaps she wasn't capable to feeling anything anymore, not even at the sight of such a beloved friend. Tom was much the same as ever, tall and solid with his hat in his hand. He wore regular clothing now, no longer the red coat of his regiment, and it suited him. His face was brown from the Spanish sun, but his eyes were the same clear green she remembered so well.
The expression in them, though, made her ill. There was sympathy there, and kindness and esteem. Sympathy, when she mostly felt relief? She had to look away, and her gaze dropped back to the mound of freshly turned earth, starkly black against the weathered grass. It was the only dark spot on the little hill under the oak tree, and she couldn't help thinking it was far more reflective of her husband's nature than the respectable image he had cultivated so rigidly.
Tom cleared his throat. "My deepest sympathies."
She flinched. "Thank you, sir."
For a moment there was only the sound of the bracing spring wind, whistling around them and the scraggly oak. Callie could feel his gaze upon her, and she couldn't bear to face it. Tom—faithful, kind, decent Tom—would see at once that she had changed, that something inside her had been stripped away. At last, his steps whispering in the tall grass, he came around the grave to stand beside her.
"Are you well?" he asked quietly.
She could still feel the bruises, deep and sore, on her back and hips. Julian had been angry with her the night before he died. She worried at times they would show through her clothing, like leper's spots. Was she well? Maybe never again.
When she didn't answer his question, Tom exhaled. She held herself so stiffly, he feared she was about to faint. From a distance she was as beautiful as ever, but up close he could see that she had lost weight, and dark shadows smudged her eyes. There was a fragility, an emptiness, about her now, and he knew what the cause was. "I'm not sorry he's dead," he said.
Slowly she turned and looked at him, her eyes deep, dark pools. For a moment there was that connection of spirit and mind he had always sensed with her, and then the blankness returned. "Neither am I."
Oh blessed Lord. If even Callie—the sweetest, most gentle person alive—wasn't sorry Phillips was dead, how awful must her marriage have been? Guilt nearly strangled Tom; he should have done something, anything, to help her. At the very least he could have shot Julian Phillips through his rotted heart. "How could you be," he started to say, but she held up one hand.
"I should be," she said. Her hand trembled, and she turned her eyes away, back to the grave. "But that part of my heart died a long time ago." "
Not died," he said at once, unconsciously reaching out to her. "Don't say that."
"No!" She flinched from his hand as if he meant to strike her. Tom jerked it back in alarm. "You don't know," she said in the same tense, frightened voice. You can't! Everything inside me is dead." And she turned and hurried away.
They never spoke of it again. Tom stayed in Portsmouth, becoming part of the Turner household. Callie moved back in with her family, but nothing seemed to touch the frost that had settled around her heart. She felt hollow and brittle, and her father couldn't seem to stop tapping little cracks in her surface. He was surprised Julian hadn't left her more money; he was disappointed she hadn't made an effort to help run the dry goods shop and put herself in position to take it over; he was unhappy she hadn't found a similarly prosperous husband for her sister in seven years. Callie thought of the long months she had been a prisoner of her husband's whims, told what to do and when to do it, and wanted to scream at her father. But she had learned a hard lesson from her husband; her father's temper was even quicker than Julian's, and she held her tongue. Silence was always her best choice, it seemed.
And Tom never pressed her. He was always there to lend a hand, a kind word, a strong shoulder to lean on. Callie came to rely on him, gradually feeling like herself again in his presence. From time to time she thought of that day in the graveyard and wondered what might have been… But Tom was as carefully respectful toward her as he was toward her grandmother. Callie was both grateful that he did nothing, and wistful for something she couldn't even name. The thought of marriage to anyone made her heart almost stop in horror. It was far easier to be alone, untouchable and untouched. She was content to let things go on undisturbed, and for a few years, they did.
Then Papa disappeared, and everything changed.
It was her sister who finally forced her to see the truth.
Papa had gone to visit someone and never come back, leaving them alone with Granny, whose health had begun to fail. Their finances had taken a terrible turn in Papa's absence, although they made every economy possible. They had lost their new home, a comfortable farm in Hertfordshire, and only had a place to stay through the grace of some very kind neighbors, the Hayeses. One night there was even a party, which provided a welcome respite from their worries, and much to Callie's surprise, a gentleman named Mr. Davis had paid her particular attention. She expected her sister would tease her, but he had been amusing and interesting, and she had thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
Then Cressida came into the room they were sharing, and lobbed a bombshell into her pleasant ruminations. "I think we've all underestimated Tom," she remarked as she brushed out Callie's hair. "He is one of the most wholly decent men I know, a gentleman in deed if not by birth. Just think of where we'd be now if he hadn't stayed with us all these weeks since Papa left. I cannot imagine life without Tom, can you?"
"Of course not." Callie was shocked by the suggestion. Tom had been there for so long, so steady and dependable. She wasn't sure they could get by without him. She certainly couldn't.
"And it struck me, as I was watching Mr. Davis hang on your every word, that I've known Tom for years. We get on quite well together." In the mirror, Callie could see her sister's face as she talked. Cressida looked quite pleased with this idea. Her eyes were bright, and there was a fine blush of color in her cheeks. "Perhaps I've been overlooking something, or someone, right before my eyes."
"Cressida." Callie reeled. Good God—was her sister in love with Tom? She'd never thought of such a thing. "Are you—are you saying—or trying to say—is he—Tom—does he—?"
"Well, setting my cap for Tom would be sensible, wouldn't it?" said Cressida. "We would neither of us be deceived in the other's character. Granny would always have a home, and you, too, if you wished."
Except, Callie abruptly realized, she couldn't bear to see Tom married to Cressida. Or to anyone. "Well…perhaps, but—"
"And he has his pension. Now that we've lost Brighampton, we might go anywhere. In Portsmouth there would be more work for him, and we could take one of those cozy houses down by the quay, the ones you and I used to admire so much."
"So you—you are in love with him?" Callie couldn't breathe. She herself had been the one to tell Cressida they ought to think of marriage—but she had never thought her sister would look to Tom. It seemed an odd match, Tom so quiet and modest, Cressida so determined and bold. If Cressida loved him, and Tom loved her, she would have to be happy for them, though…somehow…
"No, not in love," said Cressida carelessly, "although I am very fond of him. Didn't Papa always say that would be more than enough? I suppose I'm too old to be particular about that anymore."
"Papa said—" Callie's voice failed as joy rushed through her. Her sister wasn't in love; there was still a chance for her.
The thought brought her up short. What chance? Just because her feelings for him had grown and matured didn't mean his feelings for her had. She didn't even know for certain Tom had ever cared for her. She stopped, and blurted out the first thing on her mind to cover her relief, even tempered as it was by uncertainty. "Papa disapproved of Tom. Mr. Webb, I mean."
"Papa's no longer here, and I cannot help thinking he doesn't mean to come back. And in any event, I'm hardly a young girl who has to do my father's bidding. I daresay if Tom will have me, I couldn't find a better match."
Callie said nothing, her thoughts running wild. Papa hadn't approved much of Tom as a suitor; he'd never had to tell her that, it was obvious from the little things he said and did. But now Papa was gone, and she was suddenly realizing how ridiculous it was for her to be upset over someone else wanting to marry Tom, for any reason. What had she done to show her regard for him? What sign had she given him that the affection she'd always felt for him could very easily become much more—indeed, already had done? Because it wasn't just surprise at the thought of her sister marrying him, it was abject despair, sharp and devastating.
"Do you not approve of my idea?" Cressida asked.
She looked up in dismay. Wanting Tom for herself didn't mean she wanted to hurt her sister. Cressida seemed to sense it and sat on the dressing table bench beside her. "Unless, that is, you fancy him," she said perceptively, studying Callie's face. "And think he might return your affection."
"Perhaps," she whispered, meeting Cressida's gaze in the mirror.
Callie made herself nod.
Cressida put an arm around her shoulders. "Then you should—"
"Cressida, you don't understand!" Callie sprang to her feet and almost tripped over the bench in her haste to scramble away. "You can stand up to Papa. He—he terrifies me. When he looks at me with that stern air, like he expects me to say or do just the right thing or lose his regard forever, I seem to freeze inside. And when I disappoint him, it's dreadful; just the look on his face makes me want to cry."
"That's why Papa bullies you. He likes having command after being in the army, I suppose, and he's not much used to having daughters around."
Callie shook her head. She had never been able to withstand her father's temper. It had intimidated her before her marriage, and terrified her after. Had that meekness cost her more than she'd thought? She fumbled for words to explain to Cressida why she hadn't been able to put her foot down before, why she hadn't stood up for herself. Papa merely blustered and shouted at her, but Julian had hit her when she argued. It was a hard habit to break. "It doesn't matter. I crumble inside when he scolds me."
"But he's not here now, is he?" Cressida pointed out.
Callie bit her lip and looked at the floor.
"Tom wants to leave." Callie's heart fell. "And why not?" went on her sister, relentlessly practical. "We have no money and just lost our home. A man would have to be a bit slow not to realize his chances were better elsewhere. But for some reason, he's still here." She said nothing, and Cressida took her hands. "Do you care for Tom?"
A blush burned her face. She was such a fool not to have admitted this earlier. "Yes," she whispered.
Cressida squeezed her fingers. "You might let the poor man know of your regard. I fear Papa made his disapproval known to Tom as well, and now he doesn't dare look at you the way he did tonight, when he thought no one was watching."
Here, here was the slender thread of hope she'd been searching for. Callie latched onto it. "How did he look at me?"
Cressida's face softened. Callie realized her sister had known all along, and had acted to provoke her into action at long last. "As though he would be happy never to look away."
She found him by the tack room at the end of the stable block. It was long past midnight. Cressida had gone to sleep, but Callie had stared at the ceiling for hours until finally she couldn't bear it anymore and slipped out of bed, determined not to waste another night.
He had discarded his good coat and his waistcoat, and was working in his shirtsleeves, sitting on a tall stool at a bench by the tack room. The lanterns above his head cast his fair hair in gold and blurred the laugh lines that creased the corners of his eyes. Absorbed in a length of harness spread over the bench in front of him, he didn't notice her.
She stood there in the darkness, watching. She had known Tom for thirteen years. He was a steadfast rock in her world, more important to her than anyone else, save perhaps her sister and grandmother. Callie had long ago known that she cared for him, that maybe, if her life had been different, they might have…
But they hadn't. She inhaled a long, fortifying breath to fight back the fears crowding her mind. Cressida had been so sure, but her sister was much bolder. If Cressida admired a gentleman, she'd probably just tell him so and ask if he fancied her in return. Callie, on the other hand, would rather cut off her own hand than be wrong about this. If she was wrong, and Tom took offense, he might leave. He might laugh. Worst of all, he might pity her forever, and she couldn't bear that. Part of her, in fact, wanted to go right back into the house and pretend nothing had changed so that nothing would change.
Of course, that was the part of her that had gotten her married to Julian Phillips. Callie unfolded her clenched hands and stepped out of the shadows. "Good evening."
At her words his head jerked up, knocking against one of the lanterns. He swore, clapping one hand to the spot, and stared at her as if she were a ghost. "Mrs. Phillips," he said, sounding appalled. "It's late."
"I know. I couldn't sleep." She came another step toward him. "You aren't asleep, either."
"No." He seemed transfixed by the sight of her. Callie had deliberately left the front of her dressing gown open, hanging loose about her shoulders over her thin cotton nightdress. Surely if he were attracted to her, he would notice… And Tom's eyes moved over her with a desperate hunger that made her feel unexpectedly confident, with a sudden surge of reckless excitement.
"Why not?" she asked softly.
Eyes still riveted on her, he groped on the workbench for the harness, and gave it a rattle. "I had work to do. The trace broke."
Callie came all the way to the edge of the long workbench. She leaned forward and touched the long strap he was mending. "You always make yourself useful."
"Yes," he said in a tight voice. Callie glanced at him; his gaze had dropped to her hand, where she fingered the leather trace. The muscles at the side of his neck stood out, starkly highlighted by the lantern light. She laid down the harness strap, letting her fingertips trail over the stiff leather, and watched the twitch in his jaw.
"I talked to my sister," she said softly. "She said she had spoken with you."
Color rose in his face. Callie found it oddly charming to see him blush, even though she had seen it before. Despite years with the army in Spain and Portugal, Tom still had the skin of an Englishman. He gathered up the length of harness and carried it off without a word.
"Mr. Webb." He didn't pause. "Tom…"
He stopped as if turned to stone. "Aye?"
She wet her lips. "Cressida said she would be happy to marry you."
"What?" He jerked around, shocked.
Callie felt her lips tremble with an incipient smile, and clamped them together. "She pointed out how decent you are, how kind and honorable, and how well we know you. She said it made perfect sense to marry you."
Now he was embarrassed. "Cressida—she doesn't—I think she must have been teasing you, Mrs. Phillips."
"Of course she was. She's not in love with you." She took a step toward him. "But I am." He didn't move or reply. She inched closer. "I think I have been all along." Still he said nothing. "If you don't care for me," she said, "please tell me before I go on." She reached out and gently laid her hand on his.
He sucked in a breath so deep she thought his ribs would crack. "I care," he said in a strangled tone. "Very much."
"I wish… I wish I had known earlier. For certain." He shot her a tormented glance. "My father is gone now," she whispered.
His expression hardened. "It hasn't been about him for years."
That stopped her. It hadn't? From what Cressida had said, she'd thought it was fear of Papa that prevented Tom from saying anything to her. "Then why not…?" she managed to ask. Oh God, she had made a horrid mistake. Perhaps Cressida had been wrong, or misunderstood, or…
Tom raised his head, still staring into the darkness outside the stable. His wasn't a handsome face, but a strong one. Callie had never realized until now just how much she liked it, from the firm set of his jaw to the straight crest of his brow. There was kindness and character and decency in his face, and it was more dear to her than any other. Finally, in a tightly controlled voice, he spoke, laying each word precisely between them. "It has all been you."
"What?" She felt lost—rejected. Had she ruined her chances already? "What did I do?"
He turned. Slowly his gaze drifted over her face, her unbound hair, her undone dressing gown. "You needed time. You needed peace. You needed to recover whatever that bloody bastard Phillips stole of your spirit and joy, and you didn't need another man telling you how to do it."
She felt like crying. "Have I been so fragile—so weak?"
He swore, ruffling one hand over his hair. "I didn't mean that! I couldn't bear to bring you more anguish. How could I, when I love you more than anything?"
Callie's lips parted, then curved in a smile so wide her cheeks hurt. Her breath felt trapped in her chest. Tom's face grew taut, and his gaze sharpened. The silence was deafening. A horse snuffled in sleep, and another one answered by pawing the straw in his stall. Tom jerked his eyes away and looked over his shoulder.
"We're in a stable," he said. "Not even my own stable."
"I don't care." Callie raised her chin, her heart accelerating.
Tom threw the harness through the open tack room door. It landed with a jangle of buckles, and neither one of them glanced at it. "I do." He put out his hand, and Callie took it without hesitation. There was no need. She knew Tom inside and out, his temper, his humor, his habits, and she had hesitated long enough.
The waning night was cool and still as they ran. Hand in hand they hurried past the outer gardens, across the wide dark lawns wet with dew. By the time they reached the little summerhouse that stood on the hill overlooking the gardens of Penford, the hem of her nightdress was soaked. Tom closed the door and Callie opened a few of the tall shutters at the windows, letting in just enough moonlight so they could see each other.
"I love you," he said quietly. "I have for years. Your father wanted you to marry Phillips, and I didn't defy him."
"Neither did I," she whispered.
"I should have," Tom said, his voice vibrating with disgust. "I told him I thought Phillips was cold, and he didn't care. Phillips was rich, and I wasn't. Phillips was settled and I wasn't. But Phillips wasn't in love with you, and I was."
She covered his mouth with her palm. "Don't speak of him again," she said wistfully. "I don't want to think about those years."
"I failed you—"
"No more than I failed you—"
"But never again." He took her hand and brought it to his lips. Reverently, he kissed her fingertips, her knuckles, the fluttering pulse in her wrist. Callie placed her other hand on his cheek, smoothing her fingers over the stubble. Without a word, she went up on her toes as Tom lowered his head.
His mouth was gentle, not demanding or probing. His kiss was joy and tenderness and love, patient and yearning, finally unveiled. Callie wound her arms around him, clinging to everything he was. Her heart ached for the years they had lost.
"I love you," he murmured, barely lifting his lips from hers. He stroked her hair and ran his hands over her shoulders, as if to reassure himself she was really there. Callie shivered. She had unconsciously braced herself, but there was nothing to dread. Tom caressed her without holding her; she was free to move away, if she wanted. Instead she pressed closer, running her own hands over his white shirt, smiling with surprised pleasure when he gasped and shuddered at her touch.
"Tom," she whispered, rubbing her cheek against his chest as she tugged the shirt free of his trousers. It made her giddy just to say his name. "Oh, Tom." At last the shirt tail came loose and she slid her hands up the firm planes of his stomach and chest.
He made a strangled gulping sound and turned away. "Give me a minute," he said, breathing heavily. He stripped the shirt over his head and faced her. "I've dreamed of you, like this, for so long…" He laughed, pained and embarrassed. "What you must think of me!"
In reply Callie peeled off her dressing gown and pulled loose the ribbon at the neck of her nightdress. "I like it," she told him. "I like it that you want me to touch you." She traced the hard lines of his abdomen. Tom wasn't afraid of hard work, and he had the lean, strong body of a laborer. "I like to touch you," she said, watching his muscles flinch as her fingers passed over them. "I want you to touch me…"
"It might kill me," he told her, but his hands were already on her shoulders, easing the thin cotton aside. Callie looked up into his face and saw the heat of desire in his eyes as his hands skated across her bare skin. It was like spreading fire on her skin, and all through her body, the very last of the frost at her core melting away under Tom's hands. She could feel it in her blood now, making her hands shake as she pulled and shoved the nightgown down over her hips. It grew hotter as she watched Tom's face go tight with desire, as he fell to his knees before her and pressed a searing kiss of pure want on her belly.
"You are so beautiful," he murmured. He traced feathery swirls over the skin of her hips, around her waist, to the swell of her bottom. Her knees wobbled, but he was holding her, supporting her—as he always had. She felt a humbling rush of amazement and delight that he loved her, enough that he had waited for her. Callie ran her fingers through his fair hair and held him to her, thanking all the stars above that he had.
"I love you, Thomas Webb," she whispered. Then she was on her knees with him, as impatient as he was, and they tumbled to the thick carpet in a tangle of limbs, unable to touch each other enough.
"Do you like this?" he whispered. He seemed bent on kissing every inch of her skin. Callie felt as though she must be literally glowing; he made her feel so beautiful, so right, so happy. She wriggled closer, running her fingers through his sandy hair, dragging her fingernails over the firm muscles of his back. "Callie, Callie, my darling, tell me what you like…"
"That," she breathed, raising one leg to hook around his waist as his fingertips swirled in the dark curls between her legs. He just groaned, low and rich with masculine appreciation, and licked her nipple. Callie arched off the carpet with a gasp, and he tugged her aching nipple between his teeth. Softly he stroked aside her feminine curls, and then settled on one spot that made her scream, even though her throat closed up and all that emerged was a whimper. "That," she managed to gasp again.
"Say you'll marry me," he murmured, transferring his attention and his mouth to her other breast. "Please."
"Yes." She could barely breathe. His fingers slid easily along the slick folds, surprisingly wet. After so many cold and barren years, her body was on the verge of incineration. From the sweat beading on Tom's brow, she thought he was, too. She hoped he was. "Yes, yes, yes…" She was babbling, trying to reach the buttons on his trousers. "Please, Tom…"
He raised his head. "You're sure?" His eyes were dark now, like the sea in a storm. "No regrets?"
"None," she said, finally wrenching enough buttons loose to slide her hand inside his trousers to run her fingers along the hard length of his shaft. "I've waited forever to say it; make love to me…"
Color rose in his face again but he smiled, peeling off the last of his clothing. She heard a shoe thump against the far wall, and then he was in her arms, as bare as she was, and Callie sighed in pleasure. She expected him to move over her, but instead he rolled over and pulled her on top of him.
"You make love to me," he said, running his hands over the curves of her bottom. "I am yours to command."
Callie got to her knees uncertainly, and touched the head of his erection. Tom made a deep humming noise in his throat. She ran her palm over the length of him, circled the tip with her finger and thumb, and watched the reactions flicker over his face. He jerked in her hand, and something like agony crossed his face despite the heat of his gaze. A slight smile crossed her face; they were both as aroused and nervous as two virgins on their wedding night.
She wrapped her hand around him once more and guided him between her legs. As his hips rose off the floor, she sank down, taking him deep inside her, moaning at the unfamiliar fullness. The veins on his neck stood out and he gripped her thighs for a moment to hold her still. When he managed to smile at her again, Callie rose up and down on her knees, thrilling to that feel of invasion… unification… completion. She rocked on her knees again, faster this time, and his hand slid over her thigh to touch her. Callie froze, shocked at the powerful sensation of him inside her as he touched her on the throbbing nub above her sex. Tom grunted, pushing his hips upward, and something inside her melted. She braced her hands on his shoulders and rode him until her inner muscles pulled tight and her whole body convulsed.
Tom's neck arched and his hand flexed on her hip, holding her tight against him until she quivered one last time and relaxed. Then he pulled her down to him, chest to chest, and rolled them both over. Callie laughed a little drunkenly as he caught her knees and raised them to his waist, and then she gasped as he drove into her. He did it again, and struck something inside her that made her almost scream. But this time, when she felt that coiling heat inside her, she kept her eyes open to watch his face as he moved in her. Tom met her gaze, his eyes dark, a wave of blond hair hanging damply over his forehead, and when he caught his breath and then shouted in climax, it was her name on his lips. And Callie felt another wave of bliss sweep over her that was only partly physical.
"Oh, Tom," she managed to gasp. It was the only thought her brain could form.
He laughed softly against her throat. "Still waters run deep."
"Very deep." She squeezed her thighs around his hips. "I never suspected how deep…"
He raised his head and brushed her disheveled curls from her forehead. "Thirteen years," he told her softly. "Since the moment I first saw you."
Callie touched her fingertip to his lips. "Why did you not say something?"
His smile was a little sad. "Had I known what would happen…" He lifted one shoulder. "I was a poor soldier, and not good enough for you. By the time I thought you might have even considered me, your father had made other plans."
"Do you know," she said haltingly, "that day in the church, when I was married… You kissed me. And I wished…I wished it had been you, poor soldier and all."
He caught her hand and pressed his lips against the palm. Callie sighed from the pleasure of being held—treasured—by him. " I wished it had been me, too," he murmured. "I wanted to grab you and run."
"Why didn't you?" She couldn't stop herself from asking, even as she knew it would have been madness.
Tom sighed. "I've wondered why not for more than a decade. I… I was a coward, I suppose."
"Oh, no!" she cried. "You mustn't think that…"
He nodded. "I was. I feared what your father would do—not to me, but to you. I had to go back to my regiment. I couldn't have stayed to protect you and provide for you. The sergeant had already taken Phillips's money, and I feared…"
"Tom," she whispered. "I understand."
"I tried to leave," he added. "After Phillips died. You were so altered...but my feelings were not. I thought it would be best if I went away, but somehow I never could."
"I'm so glad you didn't. It would have been a hundred times worse for me if you had." She drew him down on top of her, holding him to her again. Tom's strong arms closed around her, making her feel warm and safe and loved. At last. "Can we go back to Portsmouth?"
"If you want, darling." He smiled, kissing her neck again. "I can be happy anywhere you are."
"And Granny and Cressida will come with us?"
"Mrs. Turner will be very welcome," he agreed at once. "I don't think Cressida will come."
She bit her lip in worry. She had seen the way their host, Major Hayes, looked at her sister, and the way her sister tried not to get caught looking back at him. "You mean Major Hayes. I suspect she cares for him, but he hasn't spoken to her, or given any indication—"
"I know the look of a man tormented by love," he said wryly. "Trust me. You won't need to offer Cressida a home."
"But we will," she said.
"But we will." He kissed her.
"And my father," she began.
Tom sighed, hanging his head. "I told Cressida and Major Hayes both: I don't know where he's gone—"
Callie shook her head. "No. I know. I don't care, either way. I suspect… I suspect he's left us for good, Tom. And I find it hard to be sorry." He looked at her with grave eyes. "But if he comes back," she continued, her voice growing firmer, "I won't be put off by anything he says. I was weak, and a fool, and look where it got us."
Tom wound his fingers through hers, then raised her hand to his lips. "We both were, I daresay. But never again."
"No." She looked around. The first gray light of dawn was bleeding through the windows. "Tonight I came in search of you, determined to be brave and bold and confident, and look where it got me. I quite like it here."
He grinned, tightening his embrace. "I quite like you here, too."
"Good." She kissed him, with longing and lust and love and a sense that finally—finally—they had gotten it right. "I plan to stay forever."
There's more to this story… Don't miss Cressida Turner's happy ending!