Questions and Contentment
Tom's pen stilled against the document on his desk. Arching a brow, he lifted his attention to Hermione. She stood in the open doorway of his study, her gaze on the hem of her skirts as she twisted her fingers in front of her.
Of all the things he expected she'd ask him after what she'd witnessed from that window in the old wing yesterday afternoon, a request to see a doctor, herself, was not among them.
Setting aside his work, he watched her for a moment. She didn't look feverish, or pale, nor did her respiration seem labored. Nevertheless, the abruptness of her request worried him.
"Are you not feeling well, Hermione?"
The concern in his voice startled her, and she couldn't help but lift her gaze to meet his. As always, his handsome features were a sweet shock to her system that stole her breath for a moment. Dear Lord . . . she'd been here for over two weeks, already, and saw the man literally every bloody day. When would she grow accustomed to him?
"Oh, I'm feeling fine, I just . . . ." God, how could she tell him what was wrong with her?
His brow furrowing, he pushed away from his desk and stood. "You can tell me. You know that, don't you?"
The young woman swallowed hard as she nodded. "I suppose, but it's not really—"
"Don't think of me as your employer right now, not if it's preventing you from being wholly truthful with me." Rounding the desk, he crossed the floor to stand before her. "Think of me as your friend."
Again, she nodded. Though, it turned out to be a struggle to get the words out, the syllables feeling quite stuck in her throat, just now. "I, um . . . I think perhaps I am not adjusting to the country air as well as one would think. Those strange dreams I mentioned to you before have returned, and well . . . ."
Tom's broad shoulders drooped as he looked down at her. In what he knew she'd consider a bold move, he gathered both of her hands into his own, his grip firm but gentle.
"Well?" he echoed, frowning thoughtfully.
His fingers were so warm, wrapped around hers like this. She knew she should not tell him what had been happening in her head, because no matter how he put it, he was her employer. But she wanted to tell him, at least something of it, anyway.
God, if Harry or Ginny knew she was falling in love with her employers and had not resigned her post, they'd have her in a sanitarium for such an un-Hermione-like decision faster than she could blink!
"I feel like I've been imagining things that simply cannot be, and so . . . the only thing I can think might be wrong with me is, well . . . I believe I'm having hysterics."
Tom's eyebrows shot up. "Oh?" He chuckled and shook his head. "I doubt that. You are very level-headed and logical and do not at all seem prone to—"
"Tom? Please." Running the tip of her tongue along her suddenly parched lips in a nervous gesture, she gave a head shake of her own. "I'm imagining things that are . . . unhealthy of a proper young lady."
Somehow, his brows managed to climb higher, still. "I see."
"So, yes. I . . . require an appointment with the nearest local physician."
"No, you don't."
Her eyes shot wide. "What?"
He tightened his hands around hers. "I'll not bore you with my reasons, now, but I will say it is my opinion that a young woman is entitled to imagine a great many things for which society dictates she should be ashamed. However, if my opinion is not enough to assure you, I would like to remind you I do have medical training, and am perfectly aware of the treatment for hysteria."
She felt warmth flood her cheeks as she stared up at him in silence.
"If you like, Hermione," he said, his tone as gentle as his hands around hers, "I could administer it and save on your need to visit some stranger. However . . . ." He let his voice trail off as he bit his lip.
Yes, that's what she'd thought he was suggesting. She could barely think around the idea of Tom handling such a delicate and intimate problem. Forcing a gulp down her throat, the question tumbled breathless from her lips, "However?"
A troubled expression flickered across his features as he held her gaze. "I'm aware that when a physician delivers such treatment, he is expected to maintain a level of clinical detachment."
She knew what she was seeing—she recognized the heat in his blue eyes as he stared down at her. Yet, she told herself that, too, was the work of her imagination. The ruse was necessary for her to keep her composure.
Was her mind actually playing tricks on her now, or had their bodies drifted closer together as they talked?
"I'm afraid," he said, pausing to swallow, "were you to allow me to do this for you, I would not be able to remain clinical or detached."
There was no denying to herself, then, the way her pulse quickened and her body flushed as she thought about Tom reacting to such a thing. Yet, she was uncertain whether she was frightened by such a prospect, or intrigued.
Forcing a gulp down her throat, she managed to get her bearings, somehow. Backpedaling a step, she took a deep breath. "I . . . I need time to think about which option would be preferable, if that's all right?" She didn't mean preferable, of course—she meant wise, she meant safe, neither of which did she consider letting Lord Tom Riddle slip his hand between her thighs, proper procedure, or not—and she knew he understood her true meaning.
To his credit, he did not look regretful or angry with her for her caution. On the contrary, the small, gentle smile that curved his mouth looked understanding.
Nodding, he gave her hands another gentle squeeze before letting her fingers slips from his as he said, "Of course. I would not wish to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, Hermione."
With an unsteady smile, she nodded back. She had another day to herself as Augustin was being moody, and she should really find . . . anywhere else to be right now. Though, some spontaneous fancy took hold of her senses, and she shot forward, brushing her lips against his cheek in a quick, light kiss.
The action had nothing to do with the sudden rush of tingly giddiness through her as she remembered witnessing Augustin and Tom kissing, she insisted to herself.
Just as fast, she pulled back and turned on her heel. She was already striding down the corridor by the time her senses caught up with her and the responding blush filled her face.
She didn't notice the way Tom ducked his head through the open doorway to watch her go. Didn't see the somewhat wicked half-grin that curved his lips, nor the captivated gleam in his eyes as his gaze trailed her movements until she disappeared beyond the curve of the staircase landing.
The gardens of Riddle Estate were gorgeous, but they were also expansive. Hermione thought it was just her luck that she'd gotten herself lost. Sighing, she turned her head and looked about her lush surroundings. It really did serve her right, didn't it? With another day to do as she pleased, perhaps she should've gone back to work in the old wing, yet . . . .
Her shoulders drooped. This had been a poor decision. After what she'd seen out here yesterday, perhaps she shouldn't be out here. What if the gardens were some special place for the two of them?
Swallowing hard, she shook her head at herself and started off in a random direction—each time she set off in what she thought was the correct one, she ended up more turned around than before, so random seemed safer. She still wasn't certain how she felt about that private moment she'd witnessed, about what it must mean.
Well . . . that wasn't wholly true. She knew how it made her feel physically, but emotionally? She was at a loss. A confused, jumbled loss. She'd overheard Tom and Augustin's conversation yesterday morning. She knew what they felt for her . . . .
She was aware of the meaning behind the intensity in Augustin's look when their gazes met lately. She knew what fueled the tone of Tom's voice as he'd spoken to her in his study doorway, she knew what caused that possessive grip of his hands around hers and the flickering warmth in his eyes.
But if the men were a couple, what did that mean for what they felt toward her? Hermione chewed at her lower lip as she walked. This was more confusing than the plot of one of those frivolous romantic novels with which Ginny was so taken. If they'd not been so open as to discuss their feelings for her with one another, if they'd kept things to themselves and she'd found out some other way, she'd understand. But they knew and they carried on, still?
Her footfalls stilled and she drew in a deep breath. What if that was what they were arguing about yesterday? They'd gotten into that heated discussion before they'd kissed . . . . Could it have been about her?
Shaking her head, she let that breath out in an exasperated huff. "Oh, listen to yourself! That could've been about anything—they'd had near their entire lives together before you came along, Hermione. Probably a matter of coincidental timing that had nothing to do with you, at all."
Gathering her skirts in her hands, she picked up her pace. At this rate, she'd be wandering about out here until dark.
Much to her surprise, however, the next turn in the path beneath her feet brought the estate house into view. With a sigh, she nodded as she continued along. She should really have someone take her on a proper tour of the garden grounds in the near future—something that possibly should've happened sooner, but had simply been glossed over, somehow.
As she got close to the house, she spied something so sweetly innocent, she could not help an airy and surprised giggle.
A smile playing on her lips, she approached the white-seated tree swing. She reached out tentatively, pulling on the ropes. They were sturdy, which seemed promising, given their weathered condition, making it even more unexpected that the white lacquer hadn't peeled away. It didn't show more age than some minor bubbling. Perhaps it had been replaced, but the ropes left as they were due to how hearty they turned out?
Good Lord! why must you examine absolutely everything? Her inner voice scolded her as she rounded the swing and seated herself carefully.
With a mildly self-deprecating snicker, she shook her head at her thoughts. As she started swinging, keeping the motions small and gentle, she considered that her life was in a very odd place right now. She'd never had a position in which she was so genuinely unsure of what the day ahead would be like when she awoke each morning.
She couldn't even say if that was a bad thing or a good one, however. Yes, she spent equal amounts of time teaching as she was hired to, and not. Yes, she was slowly but surely falling for both her employer and her student. Yes, she had fleeting and hazy memories of steamy, highly inappropriate, dreams about both of them—memories that had honestly made her wonder if fairy tale monsters could be real for a ridiculous moment. Yes, that she was not more concerned about either of those things had her worrying for her mental state. Yes, there might even be a ghost lurking somewhere in that house.
A wistful sigh escaping her lips, she fixed her gaze on the house. So many things that should've made her leave this place, and yet . . . she was strangely content here.
"I see you found my hiding spot."
Hermione's heart skipped a beat at the sound of Augustin's voice behind her. He wrapped his hands around the ropes just over hers, slowing her swinging.
She didn't look back at him as she spoke. "You sound like you're feeling better."
He hummed a quick, thoughtful sound as he started swinging her gently. "I suppose I am."
"Well, then, it is still early in the afternoon." Despite what she was about to suggest, she was rather certain she already knew what the young man's answer would be. "We could get some lessons in."
"Oh, I don't know that I'm feeling that much better."
She shook her head, laughing. "Somehow I knew you'd say that."
He caught and held her, stopping the swinging rather abruptly. When she tipped back her head to meet his gaze, he answered with a small, suspicious grin on his lips. "Then why make the offer?"
Hermione shrugged, marveling at how hard it was to stay angry with him. She should be furious he was so flippant about this opportunity to gain a proper education, but instead, she found herself sympathizing. She couldn't know what this transition was like for him, but she could imagine that adjusting to formal lessons was not as simple as it seemed.
"Perhaps I was hoping you would surprise me."
Chuckling he shook his head at her. He didn't respond, only starting to push the swing, once more.
With a smirk, she returned her gaze to the building before them. She immediately gasped, giving a little start.
Again, he stopped her motions. "What is it?"
The young woman sighed, pressing her palm over her heart as she willed her jumping pulse to steady. "I . . . saw someone in the window and it frightened me, is all. But I suppose it must've been Tom."
"Oh, so you find him scary, do you? I suppose that makes two of us."
Laughing in spite of herself, Hermione swatted at his fingers around the rope. "That's not what I meant. I didn't expect to see him in the old wing. He gave me the impression he doesn't go in there."
A troubled frown marring his features, Augustin stepped around the swing to stand before her. "He doesn't."
"Oh?" Her chestnut eyes wide, she looked from him to the window in question, and back. "Then Peter, perhaps? Though I could swear the person was dark-haired."
His brows pinched together. "Peter doesn't go in there, either. He only stays in the portions of the house where Tom might have need of him."
Swallowing hard, she shook her head as she held his gaze. "Then who did I just see?"
Augustin squared his shoulders as he held out a hand to her. "Let's go find out, shall we?"