Friday, 8 November 2013

NaNoWriMo Day 8 Word count 1565

The world around her felt odd. She had been utterly shaken by he news of Andy's death and had not had time to regroup before his unexpected arrival. He gazed down at her and she saw that without the mask to hide them, his eyes were gentle. He retained his grip on her hand as he stated that he understood she had heard back from her friends.

Her hand quivered and she nodded in a staccato fashion. She tugged herself out of his grasp and retreated to the fireplace once more. Gripping the mantle piece she gazed down into the flame. His voice washed over her and she disregarded practically all of the words he uttered. The sound of them, however, was comforting and made her feel that she may not be completely alone with Andy's loss.

“Did your superiors send you?” Her interruption was abrupt and cut him off mid flow.

He stopped his soothing tones and observed her for a moment. Her frame was buckling under the strain but he understood that she was looking for something to give her strength. His sympathy nd understanding was causing her to relax into the harshness of the feelings Andy's death had kick started – the guilt, fear, second guessing and grief. If he continued she would break under the torment. She was trying to focus all the chaos swirling around her into a point against which she could rage.

He acknowledged the accuracy of her guess. “They did. After our encounter last week, they felt I was the most appropriate person to speak with you. The antics of your friend in France were... bizarre and beyond our understanding. Men often become drunk and irresponsible. Equally, boys do and your boys have never acted in a particularly mature fashion. But this was something else.

“No man walks into a certain death proclaiming immortality unless he is insane, and we would have noticed any tendencies towards insanity as soon as we began observing them. We are uncertain as to what overcame him, but we also observed the physical similarity between him and the man you sent him to rescue.

“Which leads us to enquire: what was their relationship and were you really in charge, or was he using you as a cover? The other boys think you were in charge and in the face of the immediate report you received, I'm inclined to believe they still do. But what about your friend? Was he looking for a family member, or is the similarity between the two of them coincidence?”

Melissa sighed. “It is no coincidence, but I cannot give you the details of their relationship. It was important to Andy that this man escape the clutches of the French, but as you have seen, our efforts remain unsuccessful.”

He observed her and seemed satisfied. She had regained sufficient composure to be able to observe him in her turn. In full light and without his disguise, he was pleasant to look at. His dark hair had been styled into a Brutus, his cravat was snow white and displayed both his tan and his clean cut jawline. His clothes were form fitting after the local style and, although they featured to best advantage on the most heavily muscled men, his rangy limbs were sufficiently well toned to give his clothes an aesthetically pleasing structure. His most attractive feature to her however, was his voice. When she had previously spoken to him, it had been a struggle to hear him over the background noise – the music, the gaiety and the cries of the general populace. Here and now, he had no need to project his voice and there was no disguise. He spoke with a gravelly tone – not especially deep, but raspy and with an edge of breathiness which entered her ear and went straight to the nape of her neck, sending darts of sensation down her spine. She was glad when he started to speak again:

“I also wished to speak to you myself. We had a battle of wills at our last meeting in which I feel you bested me. My superiors were satisfied with the meagre crumbs I was able to extract from the points you let fall, but I am not.”

“I'm delighted to hear it,” she murmured. His lips quivered briefly before he regained control and firmed them. She was at a loss as to what additional information he could want from her and remained silent waiting for some kind of lead from him.

He made as if to start speaking, the smile still hinted at in the crinkling around his eyes, when the door suddenly opened and James walked in clad in his breeches, shirt and an open dressing gown. He didn't check the occupancy of the room and spoke as he and the pothers had become accustomed to by Andy's guidance:

“I say, Melly, your woman says... Oh!”

Lord Penthvere's face tightened into offended fury and James flushed darkly, wrapping the gown around himself. Melissa watched the two men, somewhat bewildered. Mary steadily paced into the room a few steps behind James and took in the situation inv a glance. She responded to Melissa's helplessly confused face with a slight frown and a head shake before retreating behind the door to her favourite chair.

“Lord Penthvere, may I introduce Mr James Hartford, a friend of myself and the late compatriot of my good friend who, as you know, recently died.”

James, to do him credit, summoned the poise and stiff upper lip that had been driven into him over several years of schooling. There was an unpleasant pause after he bowed and Lord Penthvere did not, but as Penthvere then made his courtesies to James and departed with only the barest civility in Melissa's direction, the replacement of the pause with the deepest offence on the part of both James and Mary did not seem an improvement.

Melissa was thoroughly oblivious and demanded of the room exactly what had just happened. As usual it was Mary who provided the answer. “He knows you to be an unmarried female, madam. You have a male guest who is free with your home, with your name, who is not fully clad and, moreover, is wearing a male dressing gown. He has assumed your relationship is significantly more intimate that it truthfully is, on the basis that you are a woman and Mr James is behaving in a way that suggests either deep intimacy or deep disrespect. On the basis that his actions on exiting suggested he retains respect for Mr James and not yourself, he assumed intimacy.”

“Damn.” Melissa's expletive was delivered in flat tones, no inflection permitted. Mary, with her understanding and experience of human frailties, took a guess at the subtext and was not wholly inaccurate. She smiled thinly and directed James to the armchair in front of the fire. He, in turn, was apologising profusely for his thoughtlessness.

“why is the male dressing gown an issue, Mary?” Melissa had been cogitating briefly upon that point. “Sure a man wearing a female dressing gown would be more scandalous?”

Mary smiled briefly before expounding; “An unmarried woman has no need for a man's dressing gown as she would never wear it. An unmarried lady with a brother may have a spare of his, possibly a garment stored for a father. You are known to be alone in the country and therefore have no familial male guests. To have a dressing gown available implies the expectation of male guests who are not related to you, which is a truly disreputable behaviour.”

“That is nonsense.”

“I agree, madam. Sadly, it is also true.”

Melissa frowned. James could not leave in the near future, he had not eaten or rested well for days. She had intended to invite him to remain overnight, but now she hesitated. As she glanced at Mary that good woman understood her dilemma and helped resolve at least the first part of it: “If you will pardon me madam, I shall be speaking with the chef. Mr James must eat before he departs and it will require a little preparation to increase the number of covers we have available.”

She left the room and Melissa and James between them maintained a flow of small talk. Melissa was trying to forget that Andy was gone: James was trying to overcome the awkwardness with which he had felt the departure of Lord Penthvere was imbued. There was no opportunity for awkwardness from the start of the conversation however, as it was each time they became uncomfortable one or both of their thoughts drifted over the events of the last week or so and conversations kept returning to the causes and outcomes of these events.

It was particularly poignant to both of them when they raised the subject of Andy's first trip. He had accompanied him, and she had witnessed his satisfaction upon returning. However, briefly, she felt that at least he had been home in this strange world before he died. James was carrying a lot of guilt from being there and witnessing Andy's death, He felt certain he should have been able to prevent his death, or at least identify the likely outcome of the scenario and prevent it in some way.

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