The sky was heavy with the promise of snow by the time they joined the road that lead to Winfield Hall.
At two o clock in the afternoon the countryside was shrouded in gloom; night would fall within a couple of hours. From the passenger seat, Harry looked over and smiled at Dempsey. They had been driving in comfortable silence for some time.
She was still getting used to their new intimacy, but as the weeks passed it seemed to be getting easier. She had worried that working together would be difficult, but so far her fears were unfounded. They still bickered of course; that had always been their relationship. The difference now was that he took her in his arms at the end of each day, and their arguments seemed to be forgotten. It was still a secret in the office and she wanted it to stay that way.
Any niggling worries were a small price to pay. She had fallen in love with him, and that gave her a joy like she had never known. In comparison, her anxiety about work or what other people would say, paled into insignificance. And he felt it too. He told her he did, and besides, she just knew it in her bones. It had been there in his eyes when he picked her up earlier; there in the way he had pulled her into his arms and kissed her with such a passion that they almost hadn't made it out to the car at all.
Now he reached over and touched her hand. She squeezed his fingers back. They had been together like this for five weeks now – was it really only that long? This would be Dempsey's second visit to her family home in that capacity. The first had been at Christmas just a few weeks ago but things were so new, and they were both so tired… this time, she really wanted her father to get to know him. She wanted him to feel like a part of the family.
She watched him covertly as he focused on the road, singing along to a Country song on the radio. He looked well, she reflected. The tiny lines around his eyes seemed fainter and the sallow look he sometimes had when he was particularly stressed or exhausted was gone. A rush of tenderness ran through her. It was funny what you felt once you let the floodgates open. She'd kept so much bottled up, but now she felt lighter than air, happier than she had in a very long time.
As though reading her thoughts, he spoke.
"Gotta tell you, I'm feelin' a bit nervous. Meeting your Dad an' all."
"You've met him before. And Freddy loves you, you know that.'
"I know but," there was shyness in his grin, "now it's different… you know. He won't get the shot gun out on me or anything will he?"
"James, don't be ridiculous! He's a pussycat. He'll offer you a drink or three, clap you on the back and try and persuade you to go out on a grouse shoot with him. He's never been one of those overprotective fathers, actually. He always trusted me to know my own mind."
"Oh yeah? So he was happy when you went into the police force?"
'Well," she wrinkled her nose, remembering, "I have to admit, he was a little… surprised. It wasn't something anyone else in our family had ever expressed the remotest interest in. And you know, I was married quite young -" she glanced at him - "but I think that deep down he knew I was never going to be happy just being a society wife. He's always said I'm like Mummy, who was apparently extremely adventurous by nature. Of course that generation never had the same sort of opportunities women do now…."
She trailed off.
"How old were you again when your Mom died, angel?"
"Oh, I was very young, only seven. It was a riding accident. I don't remember her very well, except from photos. I remember how much I loved her. Apparently, I was devastated. And ever since then, it's just been Daddy and me."
Dempsey heard the sadness in her voice and was struck with two things: the sense of wanting to know everything about her, and something else – the need to protect her. If he had his way, she would never experience sorrow or pain again. Maybe life wasn't so simple, but he could try.
They were travelling down a long country lane. The first flakes of snow had begun falling.
Harry smiled. "Winfield Hall is beautiful in this weather. It'll be very cold, though. Daddy only heats a few of the rooms; otherwise, the bills would be astronomical. He's got terribly hardy over the years – barely notices the cold. I always bring extra sweaters with me when I come to stay."
"Hey I'm not worried. I got you to keep me warm, remember?" The way he said it made her insides turn over.
They drove through Micklethorpe, a small village a mile from the Hall. On the green, children were playing, muffled up against the cold. The falling snow was creating great excitement.
"Man, that is just so English" he smiled. "Actually, in a weird way – it's English, but it kinda reminds me of home at the same time. Central Park. I guess it's the snow – it's always freezin' cold in New York this time of year."
She rubbed her hands together. "I'm just glad to be out of London. I think we both need this weekend together, James."
"Amen to that. Let's just hope we don't get called back to the office any time soon."
"I think you'll find I've made a point of not giving anyone in the office my Father's home number."
They had reached the entrance to Winfield Hall, and he turned onto the sweeping drive. The land beyond the gates was brown and dark green in hue, the carefully spaced trees bare. Snow was falling faster, powdering the landscape with sparkling white.
The Hall itself rose up ahead of them, dark and imposing. However, Dempsey could see lights within, promising a warmth and hospitality that belied first impressions. Perhaps not unlike Lady Harriet herself, he thought.