“I decided I needed to come down and see what was happening for myself.”
She’d harbored a tiny kernel of hope that she might have contributed to his reasons for returning, but…whatever the reason, he was at last there. She sipped, turning over his words. Puzzled, she said, “Our farmers have already planted or are in the process of doing so.” She glanced at him. “I haven’t heard of any new procedure, or any seed shortage, but if there has been any disruption to the supply, Marcus would know.”
He met her gaze briefly. “I’m sure the situation will sort itself out.” He looked forward again.
She did the same, the warmth from the tea slowly seeping through her.
Silence descended, wrapping about them, but it was comfortable, unstrained—comforting.
Then he murmured, “Your butler told me Algaria had passed on—I hadn’t known. He also said your parents were traveling in Europe—I thought that, as Lady of the Vale, your mother never left the area.”
Thomas raised his mug and drained it while inwardly cursing his own curiosity; he knew very well why some errant part of him wanted to know if a Lady of the Vale could live elsewhere.
“Mama could have left at any time—we’re not tied to the Vale in any tangible way. But our duties…” Lucilla paused, then went on, “It’s by our own choice that our duties bind us. Mama has never traveled out of the country before, but she’s gone down to London, or to Edinburgh and elsewhere, often enough. But she never left the Vale except when Algaria was there to stand in her place. Now that I can do the same, Papa persuaded her to go and experience all the sights she’s always longed to see.”
She paused, sipped, then went on, “Neither Mama nor I would ever leave the Vale untended—without one of the Lady’s chosen to care for her people.”
He’d assumed as much, which was why he’d long ago decided that she would never be—could never be—the lady for him.
She continued, “It’s not just our role as healers, but as…foci, or figureheads. Just being there gives the people a central figure, one that draws them together, that gives them hope and bolsters them in times of trouble, and keeps the community united.”
He knew that was so, understood that well enough to entertain no ambition to steal her away. She was the embodiment of the future for the people in the Vale, and they were good people. She was theirs.
And that being so, she could never be his.
That errant part of him that, despite all, wanted her, didn’t like that truth, but he couldn’t argue it, couldn’t fight it.
His empty mug dangling from his fingers, he stared out at the fields as the rising sun bathed them in golden glory. Both he and she were tired, but not exhausted. They had worked all night, yet a sense of quiet euphoria filled them. The Bradshaws were much better, and all were sleeping normally—even he could see that.
Suddenly, she leaned against him, her shoulder against his upper arm, her tipped head resting on his shoulder. Lids low, she sighed, then murmured, “You don’t mind, do you?”
He looked down at her, at her flaming red hair; wisps had come loose and curled, lit to brilliance as the sun touched them. “No.” He was passably good at lying. Having done so, he decided he might as well be hung for a wolf as a lamb. He raised his arm, letting her settle more comfortably against his side, then draped that arm about her shoulders. She might be delicately built, but she was very real. And wholly feminine.
Feeling the subtle warmth of her stealing into his muscles, he drew a careful breath. He forced himself to look out over the fields and state what he knew had to be. “Once we’re sure the Bradshaws are on the mend and the Forresters arrive to relieve us, I’ll escort you home.”
Best to underline the limit of their association—for himself even more than for her.
The Forresters arrived in a pony trap at ten o’clock that