The Return

Yorkshire, 1816

He waited for her in the long gallery.

A cruel irony to choose the room in her family home where he’d proposed to her. But that day had been five years ago. Perhaps he’d forgotten the precise circumstances.

Lady Sarah Cheyne held no illusions about this visit’s purpose. The war with France had finished last year. Her personal war edged towards its final battle.

Julius… No, he was Lord Stratton now, wasn’t he? His uncle had died childless a few weeks since and Julius had inherited the title. Sarah guessed he’d returned to Yorkshire to inspect his estates and finalise business. Amongst that business, he obviously included the woman he’d offered for before he left England to fight Bonaparte.

Julius stood at the far end of the room, facing away. He watched the rain tumble down outside the mullioned windows.

She paused in the carved doorway. Feverishly, she drank in the sight of him. She remembered him as tall. Now his expensive tailoring stretched across broad shoulders and a powerful back. He’d filled out from boy to man. His black hair, a trifle too long, brushed the high collar of his blue coat. Her fingers curled at her sides as if they itched to tangle in those dark waves.

She hadn’t seen him since he’d left for Spain. At five and twenty, she was no longer the giddy girl he’d wooed that summer before his departure. Even so, her breath caught in her throat and her heart constricted with poignant joy to see him, alive and here.

She smoothed palms damp with nerves down her black skirts and drew a deep breath to calm her racing pulse. Raising her chin, she walked with artificial sedateness towards him. Once she’d run unhesitatingly into his arms, but those days were long past.

He didn’t turn until she was a few feet away.

Shock brought her to an abrupt stop. She bit back a horrified gasp. So much that had puzzled her became clear in an instant.

The unforgiving winter light was stark on his features. He’d left as a handsome lighthearted youth. Five years of war had changed him beyond recognition. Relentless Spanish sun had lined his face, and his cold eyes hinted at experiences she could hardly imagine. An angry red scar sliced from temple to jawline. It gave him a devilish aspect completely alien to the sweet-tempered man she remembered. He looked years older than the twenty-eight she knew him to be.

“Julius…” His name was a husky exhalation.

“Lady Sarah.” He bowed his head, his mouth flattening in a wry line. “Thank you for agreeing to see me.” Even his voice had changed. It was deeper, harsher and had lost the tinge of humour that had usually warmed his words.

“You’re always welcome.” She gestured towards chairs grouped around the blazing fire. “Would you like to sit down? I’ll order tea.”

He shook his head. “No, thank you. This is only a brief call.”

She tamped down a prickle of hurt. “As you wish.”

He moved closer. Like many fashionable gentlemen, he carried a cane. Now she realised he needed the stick for support. As his lips thinned with discomfort, she fought to stop herself darting forward to help him.

“You’re wounded.”

Once she’d known everything that happened to him. He’d written hundreds of letters, letters whose every sentence had only made her fall more deeply in love. But the letters had stopped after he’d survived Waterloo. She’d continued to write but never received a reply.

“Yes.” She longed for details but his rigid expression repelled questions. He fumbled in his coat and produced a flat packet. “William wanted you to have this.”

She swallowed to shift the painful block in her throat and accepted the envelope. “Were you with him at Waterloo when…”

“Yes.” She thought he’d stop there but after a pause, he went on. “It’s where I was wounded.”

The packet had her name on it. She traced one trembling finger across her brother’s untidy scrawl. “Thank you for bringing his last letter.”

“It was what he wished.”

She blinked away stinging tears. William had been quieter and more serious than his best friend, Julius Hillier, and the two had been inseparable from the day they met at Eton. Right up until William’s death on the battlefield. She wondered if Julius too was silent because he felt her brother’s gentle ghost hovering close.

“I miss him so much,” she said quietly.

Fleetingly Julius’s eyes met hers and she caught an echo of the man who had loved her. “So do I.” Then the polite distance returned to his expression. “I have another matter to discuss.”

“Yes?” She slid William’s letter onto the window seat. She’d read it later when she was alone.

“What I say will come as no surprise, perhaps even a relief.” His voice was cold but a muscle flickered in his cheek. He wasn’t as composed as he wanted to appear.

She didn’t speak. She had no intention of making this easy for him.

“Lady Sarah…”

“Julius, for heaven’s sake, call me Sarah,” she said sharply, reminding him that they were far from strangers. Even now, after five years and so many changes that wrenched at her heart, she could still read his feelings. Awkwardness. Reluctance to hurt her. Determination to cling to his honour. He wasn’t that different from the boy she’d promised to marry. Not really.

“Sarah…” He stopped again. She noticed the hand curled over the top of his cane was white-knuckled with tension. “Last time I saw you in this room, we made promises to each other that need no longer constrain us.”

He did remember.

Her heart which had been leaden with despair suddenly leapt with hope. Her voice shook as she spoke. “I agreed to marry you.”

A haunted expression shadowed his grey eyes, so swiftly she’d have missed it if she hadn’t watched him so closely. “I ask you to release me from my obligation.”

She’d known he’d say this. But hearing the request still turned her blood to ice. “And if I don’t?” she asked through stiff lips.

He frowned, more in surprise than displeasure, she thought. “Your good sense must forbid you holding to an arrangement that is so obviously unsuitable.”

“Now you’re Lord Stratton, you seek a woman of greater fortune?” She knew it wasn’t true, but she was desperate to break through his unnatural control to the real man beneath.

Annoyance crossed his features and for a moment he looked like her passionate suitor of long ago. “Of course not. Don’t be absurd.”

“Then what has changed?”

He made a furious, cutting gesture with his free hand. “You have eyes.”

“Yes. And a memory that once you loved me.” How could she stay angry with him? He did this for her sake, however mistaken he was. She braced herself to ask the only question that mattered. “Don’t you love me anymore, Julius?”

His expression tightened and his voice was bitter. “Any sane woman would jump at the chance to avoid tying herself to such a monstrosity.”

“Self-pity?” Although her heart ached for the pain he’d endured.

He flinched as if she struck him. “You’ve grown cruel, Sarah.”

“No, but I know what I want.”

She meant to fight for it too. She hoped he noted the warning.

“Good Lord, woman, look at me. I’m a complete wreck.” He lunged forward and snatched her hand. Despite her resistance, he pressed her fingers to the raised ridge of his scar. “Does my ruined face repulse you? It should.”

“Oh, Julius,” she said in a broken whisper and stroked his cheek in a caress. The flesh was warm and smooth beneath her touch. “You could never repulse me.”

He jerked out of reach as his tone developed a sarcastic edge. “I see now. You’re being noble. Well, I don’t need you to sacrifice yourself to the past or to some ridiculous idea that you owe me your hand in marriage because I fought for King and country.”

She wasn’t the one breaking her heart over a wrong-headed notion of honour. She stared him in the eye, daring him to contradict her. “I waited for you for five years. I’ll wait the rest of my life if I must.”

His gaze was veiled with sadness and a loneliness that pierced her to the soul. His unspoken yearning cut her like a knife. “As I am now, I’m not worthy of any woman.”

“Don’t be a fool.” She continued before he could argue. “You never answered my question – do you still love me?”

She wondered if he’d lie. He’d once been the frankest of men.

His shoulders slumped in defeat. “You leave me no pride.”

“Is pride worth your happiness?” Her voice hardened. “Do you love me, Julius?”

“Yes, curse you.” He bit out the admission even as the bleakness drained from his face.

For the first time, she smiled. “That’s all I need to know.”

He straightened and glared at her. “You knew you’d win, didn’t you?”

“I hoped.” Her smile widened and she held out her hand. He grabbed it hard enough to hurt but she didn’t mind.

“Hope has been a stranger in my life since Waterloo.”

“But no longer a stranger.” She shifted closer to bask in the warmth of his leanly muscled body. “It’s been five years since you kissed me.”

She tilted her chin up as he bent his head. He gave a rueful laugh. In his grey eyes, she read the exact moment he finally surrendered.

“Far too long, my love.”

His lips descended and her arms slid around his neck, clutching him to her. She’d come perilously close to losing him. The chill that had held her captive for five endless years melted under his kiss.

Julius had been away so long. But now he was home.

This story first appeared in Woman’s Day (Australia) on 17th November, 2008