What do you mean, you’ve never been to an estate house?” Archibald asked as the carriage rolled along. The sun was shining, and the day was beautiful. Harold was leaning out the window, watching the countryside go by. When his friend spoke, Harold pulled himself back in. “Well, I have,” he replied. “But it was not under good circumstances.” Archibald smiled. “I would like to hear more of this story, as I have known you a year, and this fact has only come out now.” “Well…” Harold bit his lip, considering where to start. He did not know that his new friend was a laird until recently. They had gotten along well when they first boarded the ship in a small Scottish port, and Harold assumed that, like him, Archibald had traveled a great distance to get there. It hadn’t occurred to him that Archibald had been on a promenade through the countryside, staying at the most lavish houses and enjoying a luxurious life. Of course, his newfound friend did not act like most lairds Harold had encountered. “My father is a healer. Whenever we were called to an estate house, it wasn’t on pleasurable terms, if you know what I mean.
” “Aye,” Archibald said. “So, you assisted him?” “I did, for many years. He has a new assistant now, simply because I left. I do wonder how he is doing, and whether my father has taught him well yet.” “Did you not want to be a healer yourself?” Archibald asked, and Harold shrugged. “I considered it. But a healer has to be…more than calculating. Humans are more than just a strategy or a tactic. No matter how much you practice it is almost certain that you will come across situations you can not handle. I thought that I was best suited in the navy, and my father was fortunate enough to have the funds to buy a small commission.
” “Do you know, I considered not buying a commission,” Archibald said, as the carriage got closer to the estate. Harold was impressed with it when he saw it, but he chose not to say anything about it. He did not want his friend to think he was using him for the estate or the soft bed to sleep in over the winter. The truth was, Harold had no idea where they were going to go when it was announced that the ship would dock over the harsh Scottish winter months. They were told that it could have been anywhere from a few weeks to two months. He could have gone home, he supposed, but it was possible that he would have used up all his leave just traveling there, as he lived on the other side of the country. He was grateful when Archibald invited him to his home and was surprised when he found out that the young midshipman he served beside was also a laird. A laird normally bought commissions that were of a much higher rank, but Archibald was different. “I suppose I should tell you,” Archibald said, as the carriage began to slow down, “that the house is quite full.” “I wouldn’t want to impose,” Harold said, and Archibald shook his head.
“No, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that I have two sisters and a brother, and then we usually have extra servants over the winter to keep the fires stoked. I hope that does not bother you.” “Not in the slightest,” Harold said as they got out. Their sea trunks were tied to the back of the carriage, and the man who had been driving it promised he would bring them in. Harold did not know the man, but he trusted Archibald, and so he followed his friend up the grand marble steps and into the house. At first, he wasn’t looking at who was coming towards him. He was more distracted by the fact that his shoes were muddy, and he was tracking it all over the white marble floor. Harold wasn’t sure where he had inherited his need to always be on point, as his father was not that way at all. His father was relaxed and calm and always seemed to know what to do, whereas Harold felt like he put an excessive amount of energy into figuring out what breath to take.
He knew that others seemed to think he knew what he was doing, but he felt like they would find out that wasn’t true at any moment. When he finally looked up from the dirt, he had to try his hardest not to drool at the beautiful house. The most beautiful woman in the entire world was coming towards him. She had the most sparkling blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and her smile seemed to light up the dreary entranceway. He suddenly did not see a need for the candles when the woman standing in front of him was brighter than any candle. “Harold,” Archibald said, trying to snap him out of his faze, “may I introduce you to my sister, Anna.” Harold could not fathom that this deity that seemed like she came out of a myth could be Archibald’s sister. “Hello,” Harold managed, and cursed himself for speaking with a shaking voice. To his surprise, the woman smiled. “Hello,” she said with a voice as lovely as her appearance.
“My brother did not tell me that he was bringing a friend home.” “I do not want to intrude. If you—” “No, no, it is not intruding,” she said as she met her eyes. “I am pleased to meet you, truly.” “Anna, are we interrupting something?” Archibald asked, as he pointed to the fact that she only had one glove on. Anna looked down at her hand and smiled. “Oh, I was going out, but I do not have to.” “Where are you going?” Archibald asked. “It does not matter,” she replied. “The truth is, I was looking for an excuse not to go, and it appears that you have given it to me.
” “We have?” Harold asked. “Of course. I could not go out when I have guests who need to be settled. I shall inform the butler at once.” She gave Harold a dazzling smile and then headed up the stairs. “I live here!” Archibald called after his sister, which made her giggle as she continued to ascend the staircase. Harold didn’t know what to say next. He wanted to ask Archibald a million questions about Anna, but at the same time, he did not want to appear forward or eager. He had not been a guest at very many houses in the past, but he assumed that it would be bad form to start interrogating his host about his sister. Luckily for him, Archibald volunteered the information.
“Anna is involved in many different causes and societies,” he said, as another butler showed up to take their jackets. “Sometimes, I do not think she knows whether she is coming or going.” “Causes such as…” “Oh, I cannot keep track,” Archibald replied. “Sometimes she is feeding the poor, sometimes she is sewing for the elderly, and sometimes she is organizing boat races.” “Boat races?” Harold asked in surprise. Archibald chuckled. “Indeed,” he said. “That was only once…as far as I know.” “And her husband does not mind?” “Husband?” Archibald shook his head. ”No, she didn’t get married.
Neither of my sisters are.” “Ah,” Harold replied. As if on cue, another young woman swept into the room. “And here is Hannah,” Archibald said, as the young woman embraced her brother. While she was pleasant looking, Harold could not help but think that she paled in comparison to Anna. She even looked different, as if she was grown in another garden that was perhaps of flowers of a different variety. He did not know how else to put it. Ever prescriptive, though, Archibald managed to clear up that matter as well, as he gave Harold a tour of the house. “Hannah is a ward of the house,” he said, as they walked, “although I feel she is as much my sister as Anna is.” “That is very generous of you to take on a ward.
” “It was my father’s decision,” Archibald replied. “And I am grateful that he made it, for I feel that our household is truly complete. However, as we all get older…I admit, Harold, I do think of whether or not my line will continue, for none of us are married.” “Surely your sister—your sisters—have suitors?” he asked. He was almost afraid of Archibald’s answer because he did not want to be disappointed, but he knew it was a fantasy to think that such a beautiful woman did not have a suitor. “Of course, they both have suitors. But, pardon the pun, none of the suitors have been suitable.” “Well, it’s a difficult choice to make, to want the best for your sisters, as head of the household.” “I do want the best for them. And I have the final say as laird, however, they’ve never given me a chance to get to the final stage because Anna especially has rejected every man who has come near her or even so much as looked at her.
” “I see,” Harold said. Archibald laughed. “Don’t let it bother you.” Harold felt himself paling. “Bother me? Why would it bother me?” “Oh, I just meant that it shouldn’t destroy our time off the ship,” Archibald said. “Anna isn’t an unpleasant person.” “I wasn’t thinking that at all,” Harold admitted. He had thought that the moment in the hallway was perhaps a singular moment and wouldn’t develop into something more. But each time he saw her, he felt his heart leap. He was at least pacified by the fact that she seemed to be reacting to him the same way.
They met eyes across the table many times over the course of his stay or walked in the garden and spoke for hours when others were not around. They knew it was important to be alone together, but he felt like it was more than just feeling pure. If he was alone with her, he was not sure what would happen, and that thought both excited and terrified him. Anna gave him soft smiles when she descended the stairs in the morning, and his gaze was the last thing she looked at before she went to bed. He could not wait to speak with her again, even if it had been a few seconds since they last spoke. He could not wait to tell her everything in his head and every mundane detail about himself. When it came time to return to the ship, both of them locked eyes in their final moment together. He did not know what to say to her, and she did not know what to say to him. So many moments and possibilities passed between them, and yet he knew that they could never be. She was noble, and he was just the son of a healer.
In addition, she was the sister of his dearest friend, and he could never do such a thing. He did not want to lose the friendship he had, nor drag such a prosperous and strong-willed woman down to the salary of a midshipman or lieutenant. He wasn’t sure he would rise higher than that, although he would try. He would not be good enough for a woman like her. One did not try for Anna. They succeeded because it was the only way to get her attention. “Will I see you again?” he finally asked. She smiled. “I expect so. You and Archibald will be on leave again, won’t you?”