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Authors: Amanda McIntyre

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BOOK: The Master & the Muses
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“Well, I hope that you won't always feel that way,” I said. “You deserve more.” He looked at me, his gaze steady, curious.

“Why is it so important to you, Helen? My life is my affair, isn't it? If I choose to share my life with someone, then it will be my choice, not directed by someone who is clearly—” He set his cup on his saucer. “I'm sorry, Helen. I said too much, I should leave.”

He pushed up from his chair and hesitated as he looked down at me. Finally, he leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on my cheek. “Wait.” I grabbed his hand. “You meant to say someone who is clearly
unhappy,
didn't you?”

I heard his tense sigh. “I reacted badly,” he said. “I apologize.”

I clung to his hand as I stood. “Isn't that what friends do, William? Don't they speak openly with each other? Don't they wish the best for each other?”

“Yes, I suppose, Helen.” He patted my hand, gently tugging his from my grasp. I held on firmly, desperate to hear what I hoped was true.

“We used to talk about so many things. Do you remember our walks in the park, our trip to the gallery?” It was a selfish display, begging him for attention like this. But looking at him reminded me of easier days—days when the future looked brighter.

“Helen, I am sorry, but I would rather not talk about this.”

“Of course, what's in the past is in the past.” I gave a short laugh. “It can't be resurrected, nor should we wish that it could be, right, William?”

He stared at the floor but did not respond. I pressed further, needing to understand how he'd been able to walk away from me so easily, never once showing that he cared. “Is that the reason you travel so much? To get away from here?”
To get away from me?
He glared at me.

“You think you know me? You think you know how I feel?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “I only wanted to know—”

“You want to know the truth, Helen?” His gaze narrowed as he squeezed my hand tight. “I'll tell you, then. It nearly killed me to find you on the floor, nearly gone…to realize how close I came—” He shut his eyes. “We came, to losing you.”

My fingers ached, but no worse than did my heart. We stood looking at each other, the challenge to walk away or follow through on our emotions, hanging with tantalizing fascination between us. “I'm glad it was you that found me.”

“You might have died,” he said, searching my eyes.

“But I didn't,” I tossed back. “I just want you to be happy, William. You're the kind of man every woman wants.”

“Everyone except you, is that what you mean?” he snapped back.

My lips parted to respond, but the shock of his words barred
my voice. It was not me who had walked away that day—or was it? I finally found my tongue and my spine at once. “That was your choice, William.”

His laugh was cynical. “And later, when you had the choice to marry?”

I tugged at my hand, my frustration growing. “You're hurting me.”

“You made the choice, Helen.”

He yanked me closer, capturing my hand against his chest. “You said nothing, and I thought it was because you didn't care, that you were being loyal to Thomas.”

“Of course, good old dependable William. Steadfast and true, predictable as the sunrise. Just give him a pat on the head every now and again? Is that the picture you've painted of me, Helen?”

I was shocked at his perception. “N-no, of course not,” I stammered.

“Do you think it was easy for me to watch you carrying
his
child, wishing it were mine? Do you think it was easy coming back from a trip and finding out that you'd married him?”

He grabbed my shoulders, squeezing them painfully.

“I—I didn't think—”

“That's right, Helen. You didn't, not that it would have mattered, because I've always thought of Thomas first, before my own happiness. I took care of him, saw to his needs, consoled him, celebrated his successes—then you came along and took that job away from me. Yet, here is the ironic twist. What I first thought was best for Thomas was really what was best for
me.
And I have had to stand by and watch him squander that.” He touched my cheek and I nearly burst into flame. “I've had to watch him squander the gift that I gave up.” His eyes shimmered as he leaned his forehead to mine. “If I had the chance to do it all again, I would never have stepped aside.”

His thumb brushed my cheek. I dared not look at him, his mouth so temptingly close, his confession igniting a fire that
coursed through my blood. His finger touched my chin, coaxing me to meet his gaze, and there I saw the torment and passion I had seen once on a summer afternoon long ago.

His lips captured mine, claiming me in blinding, selfish lust. He pressed his body against mine, pinning me to the table and sending one of the teacups shattering to the floor. I welcomed his heated kisses, trailing down the slope of my neck, succumbing to his urgency to find my mouth again, appeasing this vicious hunger that consumed us both.

“I should burn in hell for what I want to do to you, Helen,” he whispered, his breath hot against my cheek.

I swallowed hard, my fingers stiff from gripping the front of his shirt, but I did not want to let him go. “Tell me, William. Tell me what you'd do,” I pleaded shamelessly, my loneliness nearly swallowing me whole.

“No, Helen. I'm sorry, I can't.”

He held my face, searching my eyes for an answer that I could not give him.

“William,” I whispered, leaning up to capture his mouth in another soul-searing kiss.

“We can't,” he said, squeezing his eyes, blinking them as if trying to clear the haze of desire between us. If fate had anything to do with my life, it had just dealt the cruelest hand to me yet.

“Can't, or won't?” I asked with bravado, his taste lingering on my lips.

He closed his eyes for a moment and drew me close, rubbing his cheek over my hair.

“God, I envy him,” William said quietly. “Like an open wound, and it is a torture that I live with every day, knowing that it is him who has every right to be in your bed.”

He stepped away, holding me at arm's length, and then turned from me, raking a hand through his hair. “I'll go mad if I dwell on this. You are not just a model anymore, Helen, but his wife. What I feel is wrong in so many ways.”

He reached for my face, stopping short, and curled his fingers,
drawing his hand to his side. “I have no right, not after all Thomas has done for both of us.” He pressed his lips to my forehead in a tender kiss. “I have to find a way to forget, Helen, and I need you to forget, too. It's the only way.” He dropped his arms to his sides as if touching me was poison, forbidden, and the next moment, he was gone.

I sat staring blindly before me long after he'd gone. The man I had married had no time for me; the man who desired me more than I could conceive was noble to the point of martyrdom. My loneliness consumed me. I had to have time to think, to get away from here and go back to where I once remembered feeling safe and secure—home. I prayed that Papa would accept me.

 

The next morning I spoke to Thomas about going home for an extended visit. He agreed that the fresh air and sunshine would be good for me. “You're sure that you will be well?” I asked, a part of me hoping that Thomas would try to talk me out of leaving. We stood on the front stoop, my bags already in the carriage.

“It's only for a short time, Helen. Between William and Grace, I'm sure I can manage adequately. I was once a self-reliant bachelor, if you recall.”

I tried to dismiss the sense that he wished he was that again. Thomas gave me a peck on my cheek. William drew me into a quick, brotherly hug but I knew it was nothing more than a show to mask his true feelings.

“Enjoy your stay,” Thomas called.

I rested my head against the seat and closed my eyes, letting the gentle rocking motion of the carriage lull me. It seemed I had lost everything—my child, Thomas
and
William. I had to ask myself if it was worth the lying and heartache that I'd put my family through to attain my independence, only to have nowhere else to go but home with my bag of broken dreams.

Chapter 9

“ARE YOU GOING BACK SOON?” MAMA ASKED AS
she grabbed another bed linen from the basket, snapping it before she hung it on the line.

“Have you tired of me already?” I covered my eyes from the sun as I looked up at her. Beth and I sat on the back step shelling peas. Papa, sullen at the tragic news of losing his grandchild, had drawn me into his arms, forgiving my trespasses, yet no doubt feeling even more justified in his feelings about Thomas and the brotherhood. He told me I never had to go back if I didn't want to, that I could live with them.

Mama, on the other hand, believed that because a priest married us in the sight of God, my place was at my husband's side, regardless of how he felt about me. She did not ask how I felt about Thomas, and I wouldn't have been able to answer her anyway.

“Helen, of course I don't want you to go, but you do have a husband and there is the matter of your marriage vows,” she said, hanging another shirt.

“Do you think he and Thomas could ever see eye to eye?” I asked, clinging to a small thread of hope that if Papa could forgive me,
perhaps he could accept Thomas, too, and learn to love him as a son.

“One step at a time.” She smiled. “Beth, run on inside and see to the meat on the stove. I want to talk to your sister alone.”

Beth did as instructed and Mama sat beside me on the step. “What troubles you, Mama?” I asked, sneaking a couple of fresh sweet peas. It had been wise to come home. The crisp, clean air, digging in the garden, the homegrown food—it had all done wonders for me physically and emotionally. I felt stronger, but I was not sure that I was able to face Thomas yet.

“You do feel it was wise for me to come here, don't you?” I asked.

“My children are always welcome. I do not want you to forget that, but you have started a new home, as well. One that will soon be filled with children of your own.” She looked at me with a hopeful smile.

“Maybe,” I replied, searching her eyes. Could I bring myself to tell her about William? Did it matter anymore? My heart was still raw from all that had happened. I'd lain awake more than one night remembering our last scalding kiss, the torment of passion in William's eyes. What could I do to put the same fire in my husband's eyes again?

“Oh, of course you will.” She patted my arm.

“Mama? Can I ask you something?”

“Anything.”

“Was there ever a time when you weren't sure how Papa felt about you?”

“Ah,” she replied. “He's still in mourning, then?”

I shrugged. “I'm not sure. Thomas is…he's distant. I don't know how to get his attention.”

“Most men just want to know that you
want
their attention and that what you
need
more than anything is them.”

I tucked her words in my heart. “What if you aren't sure if what
they
need is you?”

She smiled, pressing her hand to my cheek. I smelled the laundry soap on her skin.

“You listen to me, Helen. The reason he proposed to you does not matter. The point is that he did and at that moment, you became all that he needed, all that he wanted.”

“But I fear he blames me for losing his child.”

“Neither you nor Thomas are to blame. These things happen. They are no one's fault. He will come around,” she said, “in time. But you must be the one to guide him past the pain, Helen. Men are funny that way. Sometimes we have to show them how strong they really are. That's what it means to be a good wife.”

“Sometimes I ache, Mama, desperately trying to remember how that child felt inside me. How can I show someone strength when I have so little to give?”

“That is where most women are misguided, Helen. Men think they are the ones who are strong, but they see only physical strength. Women often bear far greater burdens and those burdens make us resilient—stronger.”

She brushed back my hair, her eyes brimming with love.

“When your father declared he had no eldest daughter, I was torn between the choice you made and his—my heart was breaking. Yet, I believed that he would eventually come around, and he has, Helen. The two of you don't agree on everything, but he has accepted your choices and your husband to the extent that he is able.”

She took my hands, pressing them between hers.

“I know that your heart has been through so much. But you've got to be strong. Thomas will come around.”

For a woman with no education beyond the farm, my mama was the wisest woman I knew. I hugged her tight. It had been almost a month and I decided it was time for me to go home to my husband.

 

I felt amazingly calm. Perhaps my time away had done more good than I realized. I felt stronger, more ready to do what it took to try to piece together my splintering marriage.

The carriage pulled up in front of the studio, and the driver
helped me down and carried my bag to the door. I handed him my fare.

“Will that be all, miss?” he asked.

I glanced up at the balcony and saw that the doors to the studio were open, giving way to a faint glow, indicating the likelihood that Thomas was having his nightly port in front of the fire. I was anxious to talk with him, to tell him how well things had gone at home and how my papa had decided that if I thought Thomas was a good man, then he did, too. I wondered if William would be at the studio.

“That will be all, thank you.” I opened the door to the flat and quietly placed my bag inside. With Mama's words bolstering me, I hurried up the steps, hoping that my return would be a pleasant surprise for Thomas. That maybe our being apart would have secured what we felt for each other. I wanted desperately to be held in his arms again.

I heard voices coming from the studio as I mounted the second tier of stairs and I slowed, realizing with a sick feeling that one of them was female. I paused at the top of the steps, afraid of what I was about to stumble in on. Sheer will drove me forward into the studio and I stood in the shadows, my eyes seeing what my heart feared. Curled up in front of the fire, cradling a glass of port and dressed in one of Thomas's shirts was Grace. Thomas was kneeling in front of her, his hands braced on the arms of her chair. Based on her soft expression, their conversation was quite intimate.

I felt nauseous at first, and then angry. I forced myself to step farther into the room. “Thomas?”

Thomas shot to his feet and whirled to face me. “Helen?”

“Surprise.” I gave him a tight smile.

Grace rose from the chair and placed her glass on the mantel.

“Oh, please don't feel you must leave on my account,” I said to her, all the while looking directly at my husband.

At that moment, the front door slammed and the sound of someone bounding up the steps followed.

“Thomas, there's a bag downstairs, I thought that perhaps Helen—”

“Hello, William,” I said politely. How much did he know about Grace and my husband? He was the one who had suggested she come to clean for us, after all.

“Helen.” His gaze darted from Thomas to Grace and her lack of proper clothing.

“Will, be good and go hold that carriage for me,” Grace said.

He nodded and tore off down the steps.

I held my gaze firm as she walked up to me.

“Your husband came to my rescue tonight, Helen. Don't be too hard on him.” She looked at Thomas. “I'll get my clothes.”

“Grace,” Thomas said, “there's no need for you to leave, not after what you've been through.”

“I'm fine, Thomas. I'm sure that you and Helen have a lot to discuss.”

I glanced at Thomas and followed Grace out into the hall, waiting until she'd collected her things from our bedroom.

William nearly bowled me over as he raced back up the steps, my bag that I'd left at the front door in his hand.

“I'll put this in your room,” he said, stepping around me, hesitating but a moment as he looked over his shoulder. “It's nice to have you home,” he said, quietly ducking into the bedroom to deposit my bag, then going across the hall to shut himself in his room.

I waited at the bedroom window, feeling like a spy watching my own husband from behind the window curtain. I saw Grace lean forward and give Thomas a light peck on the cheek. Guilt mixed with my rage as I thought of the episode with William just before I left. But I had to reason whether I would have been driven to such things had I not already felt insecure about our marriage. That was the very reason, in fact, that I left; to gain a clear perspective of what I wanted—what I hoped Thomas still wanted.

I came away from the window when I heard the front door
slam. Thomas appeared a moment later in the doorway, smiling as if nothing at all had happened.

“You look positively radiant,” he said.

I assessed his dress trousers and shirt. “Why was Grace here, dressed in your shirt? Where did you go tonight?”

“It's good to have you home, as well,” he responded drily.

“Is it?” I asked, removing my hat and gloves.

He placed my bag on the bed. “If you are referring to what just happened in there…”

I cocked my head. “I'm sorry, Thomas.
Was
something happening in there?”

He rubbed his hand over his forehead. “It appears that you may well have misinterpreted the situation.”

“Misinterpreted?” I asked. “You're dressed for an evening out and I come home to find you kneeling, quite intimately by the way, in front of a whore who is wearing one of your shirts. What's there to misinterpret?”

“Helen, my muse. Let's not quarrel. It's your first night home.”

He reached for my coat and I moved away. “Tell me where you went tonight, Thomas. Did you escort Grace somewhere?”

“I went to a charity art event and no, I did not escort Miss Farmer,” he stated.

“Yet she wound up here. Would she have spent the night had I not returned?”

He shrugged. “Perhaps,” he said. “She'd been through quite an ordeal. I was being a good friend.”

“As if she hasn't flirted with dangerous men before,” I said acidly, my anger spewing from the bitterness of his apathetic response to our marriage over the past few months. “It is rather a hazard of the trade, isn't it?”

“Don't be a bitch, Helen,” he stated flatly. His eyes were cold, his mouth pressed in a firm line. “I'm going to assume that you are weary from your journey and so not entirely in charge of your senses.” He slid me a look. “I'll go fix you something to eat.”

“I'm not hungry,” I replied. Already my stomach had started
to roil. A sob clogged my throat. This was not the homecoming I had planned.

He stopped, his hand resting on the door frame. “Fine, I'm going to fix myself a port. I'll be in the study.” The door closed with a final click.

My marriage was unraveling before my eyes. I paced the room, my fists clenched at my sides, considering my options, which were few.

If I broke down now, if I gave up, I would wind up living at home or trying to live on my own. Not an easy thing to do these days in London, harder yet after being an artist's model, whereby society readily labeled you as tainted—a sinner by choice, not by need. The thought of living in a ramshackle flat somewhere, with a dozen other women—it was enough to give me pause and not act in haste.

I hung my coat on the back of the door and freshened my face and hair in the oval dressing mirror propped in the corner of our room. In the reflection, I saw the unmade bed over my shoulder and my heart stopped at the sight of the tangled sheets. I found it surprisingly easy to suspect that it had been recently used. I walked over and laid my hand on the sheet to check for warmth, then lifted it to my nose to check for the scent of a woman. I sat down, holding the sheet to my face, breathing deeply of Thomas's familiar musky male-and-spice scent.

Catching my reflection in the mirror, I remembered the day Thomas brought it home from an auction.

“To add luster to our bedroom,” he'd said with a wicked smile.

My thoughts drifted to the number of times that I'd gazed upon our reflection, aroused by our entwined limbs, the languid movement, hard flesh against soft. I thought the passion would last a lifetime. But, neither one of us was the same; at least, I wasn't. Where tragedy serves to strengthen some marriages, I was afraid it had done the opposite for us. Perhaps there were already problems that we ignored and this just brought clarity to them. I rose from the bed, straightened the sheets and decided I needed to
talk to him, if only to clear the air between us and to find out where we stood.

I walked into the study, determined to make him listen this time. He was going to see me, his wife—not a lover, not his muse. His wife. “Thomas, I wanted to talk to you about earlier this evening.” My thoughts were cut off when I saw William standing next to his brother. As always, the resemblance between them was a bit startling. “I didn't realize that…” I fumbled whether to stay or return to my room. “I'll come back later.”

“I was just saying good-night,” William said.

He paused at my side and handed me a folded note.

“You look rested, Helen,” he said quietly, pressing the paper against my palm as he wrapped his fingers around my hand. It was brief, but the warmth he offered with his gentle eyes and his hand distracted me for a moment.

“Thank you, William.” I slanted him a curious glance.

“Good night,” he said to both of us as he slipped out of the room.

Thomas stood in front of the fireplace, nursing a glass of port. He had not yet acknowledged my presence.

I stepped into the light, quietly unfolded the note and began to read.

Dear Miss Bridgeton,

It is my pleasure to inform you that your poem,
Another Time, Another Place
has been selected winner of our annual poetry competition. Yours was chosen from over two hundred submissions and was our judges' unanimous favorite. It is the guild's sole purpose to foster new talent and, as such, we invite you to submit a portfolio of your work for consideration in future publications. In addition, you will receive, via private courier, the contest purse winnings of five hundred pounds. We thank you for such a poignant submission and look forward to seeing more of your work, as well as to oversee the advancement of your career.

Most sincerely,
Cecil B. Thomas, Esq.
England Poetry Guild

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