Well, you've made it to the final chapter in my little tale. Thanks so much for reading! For those of you who have left comments, I'm truly appreciative.
By the time he made it downstairs from the upper chambers, Audrey had practically walked a hole in the polished wood floor of the county court building. Her arrival had been announced several minutes before and she paced nervously as she waited. He motioned silently to her as they stepped quietly inside a private study off the main lobby. Softly he closed the frosted glass pocket doors behind him. Drawing a deep breath, he turned and adjusted his glasses on his face. He didn't bother to ask, but he knew there was only one reason that Audrey fforbes-Hamilton would pull him from court on a Friday afternoon. He merely stood and waited for the barrage of questions that would surely be laced with hostility and confusion. She stood silently for several moments, shifting her weight nervously back and forth.
"Now Audrey, whatever it is..." He motioned to a small leather sofa.
"Just tell me that you didn't know. Say you didn't know and I'll walk out those doors without another word." Her tone was surprisingly calm, making Arnold even more nervous.
"Know what?" He asked.
"What about him?"
"He's the head of Cavendish Foods."
"What do you mean and? Isn't that enough?"
"Sit down, Audrey."
"I'd rather stand if it's all the same." She folded her arms across her chest.
"The man has a right to purchase whatever home he chooses."
"So you did know."
"Of course I knew. And if you'd taken a greater interest in the final financial transaction of the estate, you'd have known too."
"Greater interest? Nobody had a greater bloody interest in Grantleigh than I. I made the monumental sacrifice. I put my family estate in the hands of a man whose business is in direct opposition to the traditions that my father's father and all the fforbes-Hamilton's worked tirelessly to uphold. So don't you dare lecture me on my lack of interest." The anger in her voice was clear, but Mr. Plunkett could also see tears welling up in the corners of her eyes.
"He's a businessman, Audrey. A businessman entitled to earn a living-even if you don't agree with his ethics. You're not being fair."
"Fair? What is fair, Arnold? Would you explain it to me, please? And be sure to use small words. You know we poor country widows are rather slow to understand these things!" Audrey was now shouting, completely unaware of her tone.
"Audrey Louisa fforbes-Hamilton! Keep your voice down! This is a public building. My God! If your father could hear you-"
"But my father's not here, is he? He's not here and I...and I..." Her bottom lip began to quiver, opening a flood gate of tears that she was helpless to contain.
"Come..." He commanded, but with loving support.
With his arm compassionately around her shoulder, he guided her to the sofa. Being the father of four grown daughters, Arnold Plunkett was accustomed to an occasional outburst. But the emotions written on Audrey's face were clearly beyond that of normal daily drama. Showing up unannounced and questioning the sale of the manor months after the fact could mean only one thing. Something serious had happened.
"I know you miss him terribly, my dear. He loved you so very much. You had a tough row to hoe. Being daughter as well as son." Arnold words and touch were soothing, as he spoke in a calm quiet tone, gently rubbing her arm with fatherly affection.
"Why didn't you tell me?" She looked up at Arnold with eyes full of hurt. Her voice was once again calm and she gladly accepted his silent offer a clean monogrammed handkerchief. It wasn't the first time he'd made the gesture. With the death of both her mother and father in her early twenties, Audrey had relied on Arnold for much more than legal advice. He was her surrogate...and the only man other than her father that she'd ever really trusted.
"Because I knew exactly how you'd react."
"But you knew I'd find out."
"Of course. But at the time I favored later over sooner."
"Because you wanted to avoid this?"
"Because I hated to see you hurt further."
"Well it hurts more now than you ever could have imagined."
"Because now I'm in love with him." She answered after a lengthy silence.
Juggling several bags from the market, he fumbled to slip his key in the door. After a moment he found success, entering the apartment with an anxious step.
"Audrey?" He called out with a hopeful tone. He received no response. Quickly he went to work, organizing his purchases in the kitchen and restocking the bar. He smiled as he pulled a bottle of wine from a brown paper bag. Reading the label, he thought back to dinner at the bistro and how she'd raved about the vintage. Grabbing glasses from the cupboard, he arranged them neatly on a tray along with the wine and a corkscrew. Stepping back, he gave a contented nod. He grabbed one last shopping bag and turned around. Time to make the once through...
Strolling from room to room, he found everything to his satisfaction. He'd solicited a maid service to tidy up and change the linens. Not just the linens in his room, but the guest suite as well. He wanted Audrey to be comfortable, no matter where she decided to lay her head. He stopped momentarily at the guest bath, placing a fresh bar of soap in the shower. He continued on to his mother's former bedroom, where he placed a bouquet of flowers and a novel she'd mentioned on the nightstand. Only one more thing...he considered, as he tossed the empty shopping bag in the hall closet on the way to his bedroom. He walked to the master bath and retrieved the robe she'd worn briefly Saturday night. Though he knew it'd since been laundered, he still held it to his face, hoping for a hint of Audrey. He quickly made his way back to the guest suite, hanging the robe on the back of the door.
With his tasks complete, he poured himself a short whisky and retired to the reception room. A light rain fell and he stood nursing his drink for several minutes at the large picture window. He could see them dancing together on the terrace again...and the reflection of her face in the glass. There was something behind her blue eyes that he still couldn't decipher. Despite her intelligent, quick wit and her infectious genuine laugh, there was something about her that worried him. A melancholy sort of feeling. It went beyond the death of her husband. It was deeper. More intense. Something he himself longed to heal.
Sitting down at the piano, he eyed the keys with reservation. Unbeknownst to most, he was a skilled musician, playing a variety of instruments. But the piano had always been his solace, and he returned to its comfort time and again. He gently played a few bars of Chopsticks, chuckling as his fingers moved across the keys. But Chopsticks morphed into a collection of Bacharach that eventually melted into Gershwin. With every note, the rain outside increased and his hopes seeing her again diminished. Another drink and two after hours business calls did little to divert his attention. He returned to the piano just as the clock in the hall struck eight. He'd known. From the moment he'd climbed into the helicopter, he knew the night would end in disappointment. In the cab. At the market. At the corner florist. It was nothing more than a game. Again his hands found the keys, and as he played he stared out toward the Thames. A heavy fog was making its way across the city, covering it like a veil. She's definitely not coming...
He walked through the apartment, extinguishing each light and locking up for the night. His bedroom retreat called to him, and in minutes he was relaxing in his robe in front of the telly. Normally Richard abhorred television, with the exception of news and business. But he was too keyed up to turn in early and had no attention span for reading. Flipping through the channels, he found little to interest him. He eventually decided on a program highlighting American painter Marsden Hartley, though he wasn't truly a student of fine art. He focused on the screen for several minutes, irritated by the name in the back of his mind. Marsden Hartley? Marsden Hartley?
Then like a shot, it came to him. It hadn't occurred to him before, and even if it had, he would have immediately dismissed it. But the rain fell harder outside his window and the second bourbon pulsed through his veins, creating thoughts and ideas that weren't exactly rational. He stood, making a beeline for the desk in his bedroom. With a moment's search through the drawers for a phone book, he came up short. He checked the kitchen. Nothing. Finally, tucked inside the tiny sideboard in the hall, he found it. With a quick scan of the pages, his finger came to rest on the number. He reached for the phone, dialing in haste. It rang several times before a gentleman answered with a formal greeting.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but this is Richard DeVere."
"Well, well, well...I've been expecting a call. At least from one of you." The gentleman commented with a chuckle.
The windshield wipers on the big black Mercedes flapped at full speed. The fog was unusually thick and she silently cursed the weatherman for his erroneous prediction. The streets along the high end area of Chelsea were surprisingly empty for a Friday night. She tried to remember the exact route he'd taken, going so far as to start at the bistro to wind her way back. But the buildings began to have a similar look-surely a sign of too much wine the night she and Richard drove back to his private piano bar. It was then that she realized that she had absolutely no idea which apartment would fit the key tucked inside her wallet.
A few more twists and turns and ten minutes later she sat idling in front of the only apartment building that looked familiar. She searched the streets, but found no sign of the Corniche. Cruising the block, she found a space around the corner. She moved the gearshift into park and sat staring out in the dark, rainy night. It was almost eleven. Five more minutes ticked off the clock as she tried to collect herself. For a moment she considered leaving, afraid that she'd made the wrong choice. Again. But that feeling was quickly overshadowed by something she'd fought all week: the truth. With a deep breath she reached into the backseat for her overnight bag. Braving the rain with neither coat or umbrella, she quickly exited the vehicle and hurried along the sidewalk, playing hopscotch with a collection of puddles before disappearing into his building.
Once inside, she immediately knew she was in the right place. Shaking the rain from her hair, she waited for the lift. Two minutes later she was standing at the door to his apartment on the fifth floor. Her heart beat wildly in her chest, and the fear and doubt she'd harbored for days suddenly melted away...replaced with the anticipation of seeing his deep brown eyes.
She located the key in her wallet and slipped it silently in the door. Just like Cinderella's slipper, it was a perfect fit. She turned it softly opened the door. The apartment was dark and quiet and immediately Audrey called out his name. No response. Stepping inside, she called to him again as she turned to lock the door behind her. Still no answer. She moved cautiously through the apartment, dripping water as she turned on lights and checked each room. As she did, she uncovered several clues: the remains of a highball on the piano; a tray for two in the kitchen; fresh flowers and the novel she'd mentioned at dinner in the guest room. She smiled, touched that he remember. I bet he's asleep...
She tiptoed lightly down the hall, pushing the door to his bedroom open gently. Light from the master bath fell into the room, spilling across the bed. The linens were immaculate, with no sign of Richard.
"Richard?" She called his name once more, making her way toward the study. The pocket doors were closed and she opened them with a light touch, surprised to find the space empty. The television glowed in the corner and she crossed the room to turn it off. He's definitely been here. But where is he now?
She retrieved her overnight bag from the entry with a yawn. The hours of missed sleep coupled with the long drive in the rain had left her exhausted. Expecting his return at anytime, Audrey decided to slip out of her wet skirt and sweater and into something dry and more comfortable. She hoped the novel on the nightstand would keep her occupied until he came back. She grabbed it and made her way to the guest bath.
Pealing off layers of wet clothes, she tried again to collect her thoughts. There was so much that she wanted to tell him. The drive into London had been a dress rehearsal of sorts as she'd practiced the words she needed to say. What would he think when he learned that she was the widow from the manor? The time and space currently between them created a convenient cushion in their relationship. Would the fact that he drove past the lodge every day suddenly change his feelings? She could see by the little touches around the apartment that he was fully expecting her return. But the woman he expected and the woman who now stood in his guest bath in wet stockings were not the same. Would he now send her away, unwilling to continue a relationship with a too-close neighbor? Though he'd never mentioned it, she knew he must have heard the rumors about town-the bitterness following Marton's death and her unsuccessful fight to win back the manor. How could he possibly feel anything but suspicious of her motives in their involvement?
Rifling through her bag, she debated on what to wear. A heavy sigh of indecision filled the air and that's when she spied it-the soft terry robe hanging on the back of the door. She rubbed her hand across it, feeling a smile on her lips. This was the second time he'd offered it as a gesture of comfort. Bringing the sleeve to her nose she inhaled deeply, hoping for a trace of Richard's cologne. Looking back at her bag, she hesitated. After a moment of internal conflict, she removed the robe from its hook and pulled it around her. It was warm and clean and smelled of the same lavender as the sheets on his bed. She looked at herself in the mirror, running her fingers through her damp hair. With book in hand, she turned and padded quietly down the hall and into Richard's bedroom.
She found everything to be just as she remembered. The furnishings. The linens. The photographs. Again she studied the framed pieces around the room, taken with his choice of subjects: people, architecture, landscapes. He definitely has a gift. She smiled, continuing on to the study. She was eager to curl up on the inviting leather sectional, but shivered when she entered. The wall of windows created a damp chill, initiating a quest for a blanket. Her eyes scanned the room, stopping at a large trunk in the corner near the television. Aha! The perfect spot for a throw. Carefully lifting the lid, she peeked inside. Folded neatly on top she found what she needed-a soft wool blanket in a masculine plaid. She pulled it from the confines of the trunk, surprised by what she found hiding underneath. An over-sized photo album sat upon a stack of old books. Her heartbeat suddenly increased. The leather was old and worn and the gold leaf initials on the cover were barely discernible. Should I? She questioned, wondering if she dare invade his privacy. With a quick check over her shoulder, she reached for the album and removed it carefully. Turning to the inside cover, she read a heartwarming dedication.
How blessed I am to be your mother. The joy you have brought to my life is immeasurable. I hope that the love I feel for you is evident as you take this journey through the first forty years of your life.
All my love,
Audrey paused, unsure if she should proceed. She tapped her finger along the spine of the album, weighing her decision. But curiosity won out over etiquette and she poured over the album page by page for at least a half hour. She was amazed-his mother had saved everything. A complete history of Richard's life. Every school picture, every report card, every newspaper clipping. A copy of his first business contract and the first dollar he'd made as a young boy delivering groceries for an elderly chap named Dvorak. Audrey laughed, intrigued by the photos of a young Richard sans moustache. He was just as handsome as a skinny teen as he was now. His eyes hadn't changed. She noticed it in every picture-the same honest look that took her breath away. With each page she learned more and more about him. His birthday. His middle name. His acceptance into Leeds famed School of Music. She was only halfway through the album when she realized that there was so much more to Richard DeVere than she'd ever thought possible. Pictures of him donating his time at soup kitchens in London's lesser neighborhoods. Dressing as Santa and delivering gifts to the children's ward at a hospital. Proudly presenting an over-sized check to a local youth music program. Standing at a podium and speaking out against world hunger. Receiving an award for Community Steward of the Year. Tears filled her eyes with the realization that Richard really wasn't Cavendish at all. And her smile grew exponentially with each additional discovery...until she reached the last few pages in the book. Richard's wedding photos.
She studied his bride for several moments, finding she was not at all what she'd expected. He'd spoken of her briefly at the bistro, and only when she'd pressed for details. And he'd never mentioned her name. One thing was clear. She was indeed very young. Mid-twenties and not a day more. Perfect hair. Perfect smile. Perfect. Her look was surprisingly exotic-dark hair and olive skin that highlighted piercing green eyes. She was everything Audrey wasn't...striking, voluptuous and captivating. Richard stood proudly by her side, his arm wrapped firmly around her tiny waist, surrounded by family and close friends on a sun-kissed beach. The photographs were beautiful, she couldn't deny it. But something was missing. They just didn't look real, as though they were simply pages pulled from a bridal magazine. Their expressions didn't match. While Richard's face echoed true joy, her smile conveyed a complete different sentiment, as if she'd just pulled off the greatest coup of the century. She was over-confident; almost smug. It made Audrey think back to her own wedding photos...and the day she wore a very similar look.
Suddenly her thoughts wandered away from the photos as she remembered the gentle massage and the moments before they drifted to his bed. There hadn't been an ounce of uncomfortable tension between them as Richard worked his hands across her feet with a sensual touch. The sensation of falling that she'd experienced while dancing on his terrace returned when his hands moved gently up her legs and over the hem of her dress, coming to rest on her hips. Their eyes locked on one another and neither said a word as he pulled her body close. Seconds later she tasted his kiss. It wasn't soft and tender, as he'd kissed her before. This kiss was filled with what Audrey could only describe as impatient longing, reminiscent of the deserted street outside the jazz bar. His lips teased her, leaving a trail of kisses across her cheek and down her neck...making her want more. She could still feel his breath on her back as he unzipped her dress, slipping his hands around her waist and nibbling the back of her neck as a mass of silky black fabric fell to the floor around her feet. Turning her body around to face him, she was met with those same eyes full of honesty. And that's when she fell...
"Alright, alright...I'm coming." He hollered, stomping down the stairs; a Cogswell and Harrison resting comfortably in the crook of his left arm. The doorbell rang for a third time, adding to his exasperation.
"Hold on!" He shouted, turning the locks in haste. What in bloody hell? It's nearly midnight.
"What is it?" He swung the door open in dramatic fashion; his anger clearly apparent in his tone.
"I'm so very sorry to disturb you at this hour, Mr. Plunkett."
"Mr. DeVere? Is everything alright? Is it Audrey?"
"Well, that's precisely why I'm here. I just stopped at the lodge and Brabinger informed me that-"
"Well come in out of the rain..." He stepped back, allowing Richard entrance into his home.
"I apologize for putting you on guard." He pointed to the side-by-side in Arnold's arm.
"Oh goodness gracious. I'm sorry." He propped the gun up in the corner of the small entryway. "Please forgive me. Seems solicitors are always in season. I'm no Tulkinghorn, but one never knows who might be lurking outside on a rainy night." He joked.
"I don't want to trouble you. If you could just tell Audrey that I'm here..."
"Audrey isn't here. She drove to London. To see you."
"I guess it was about eight-thirty when she left. Took my car. Her Rolls is not the most reliable."
"We must have passed each other somewhere along the way."
"Would you mind terribly if I used your phone? I'd like to call my apartment to see if she's there."
"Of course, of course. Use the private line in my study."
"Thank you. I don't want to miss her again. She may have decided to drive back when she found I wasn't there."
"So you haven't spoken with her?"
"Not since last Saturday, no."
"But how did you? I mean, how did you find out that-"
"I put in a call to a colleague. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. See, I was watching this program about an artist named Hartley and-well, it doesn't matter now. I know her uncle. Professional speaking."
"Grevel?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, Grevel Hartley. He filled me in as they say. Of course I had to do my share of begging. He was most unwilling to give up privileged information. He's very devoted to Audrey's interests. So I had to negotiate a few assurances. Just to ease his mind a bit."
"Always the businessman, eh?"
"Not this time. This is far more important than any business dealing."
"You know she drove to London with the express intent of telling you everything. She's been miserable all week."
"That makes two of us."
Conventions of client confidentiality aside, Arnold led Richard to his private study, conversing as a father to a would-be suitor. He highlighted much of what Grevel has mentioned earlier, only his account was filled with far greater detail and much more emotion. Richard listened closely, nodding his head as Arnold reiterated the lengthy conversation he'd shared with Audrey that afternoon at the courthouse...one that had lasted for over two hours. He learned of her extreme aversion to the Cavendish empire, her mistrust of men in general, the enormous demands she placed upon herself and her need to cling to the one constant in her life: her family estate.
"But all that's changed now. She's found something she wants even more than Grantleigh."
"What's that?" He asked.
"You." Arnold shot him a wink.
She jumped; pulled from dreams by the ringing of a phone. It took her a moment to catch her bearings, not immediately recognizing where she was. Lying beneath the warmth of the plaid blanket, she'd drifted off instantly, unable to stay awake as she played the waiting game. Shuffling into his bedroom, she fumbled in the dark for the phone. She crawled across the bed, answering it with a cautious tone.
"Richard?" She whispered.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes I'm fine. I fell asleep. Where the devil are you? I thought for sure you'd have come back hours ago."
"I'm calling from Arnold's."
"Arnold's? What is that? A pub?"
"No. I mean I'm calling from Mr. Plunkett's. I drove to the lodge, but Brabinger said-"
"You went to the lodge?" Surely she'd misheard him. She clicked on the lamp beside his bed, rubbing her sleepy eyes in an effort to wake up fully.
"Yes, Mrs. fforbes-Hamilton...I went to the lodge."
A wave of heat seared through her body and her heart jumped up into her throat. The grogginess disappeared instantly and Audrey now sat completely sober and lucid on the edge of his bed. Despite the fact that she'd rehearsed her lines repeatedly, she suddenly was at a total loss. She'd wanted to be the one to tell him. In person. Face to face...knowing his brown eyes would convey safety, giving her to courage to share to the truth. But now it was too late. Days of staring at the cocktail napkin, knowing he was waiting for her call. Hours spent watching the manor from the French doors in the drawing room, knowing he was just a two minute walk away. Nights spent lying awake, reading and rereading the first note he'd ever written her...touched by the warmth he'd conveyed when she was nothing more than a faceless neighbor.
"But how did you...?" She asked after an uncomfortable pause.
"I spoke to Grevel." His tone was very businesslike.
"Oh I see." She nervously wrapped the phone cord around her finger, feeling a piece of her heart fall away. "Listen Richard, I understand if you don't want to-"
"Audrey?" He interrupted.
"Let's talk about this later, alright?"
"Alright." She conceded.
"And one more thing..."
"Yes?" She answered hopefully.
"Keep my side of the bed warm, Darling. I'll be there in a couple of hours."
Greetings from the Bernese Alps! We arrived late last night (exhausted from a day of travel) and I am writing to you from the most beautiful suite in all Gstaad. The view of the mountains is breathtaking and The Grand is just as I remember-grand in every detail. I can hardly believe this is the last leg of our journey. Richard was adamant that we spend the final weekend of our honeymoon in the hotel that started it all (thus the full day of plane and train hopping to get here). It will be exactly one year to the day when we drop down to the piano bar tomorrow evening. In fact, he's downstairs right now making arrangements with the bartender (i.e. good old-fashioned bribery) for use of the baby grand. From what I understand he's composed a special song just for me, though I don't know how he could possibly top the last time he serenaded me here.
We celebrated my birthday at the famed Negresco in Nice. It was more of a circus than a birthday. I insisted on a modest, quiet dinner but you know Richard. I got nothing of the sort. Once again he pulled out all the stops, transforming the private dining hall into a carnival atmosphere. Jugglers, acrobats, clowns, balloons-even an organ grinder and monkey. Can you imagine? Richard, myself, and at least FIFTY street performers? All packed into one dining room? It was the most ridiculous and outlandish display of excess I've ever witnessed in my life...and the most fun I've had in years. At the end of dinner he surprised me with a fortune teller. What an experience! With a flip of her cards, she told me of the long and wonderfully blissful life that I would share with a man who loved me very much. And all I could think was Poor Richard! He paid good money for some gypsy to tell me what I already know.
When he suggested a month long honeymoon I thought he was absolutely mad. Yet time has slipped by so quickly. We've had a lovely time, but I do miss you and Brabinger and Mrs. Poo (Bertie too). It's nice to get away, but even nicer to come home...especially to a happy one.
Looking forward to seeing you soon.
I hope you enjoyed The Guiding Hand of Fate!