Lucille and Mother and Father were waiting for me near the lodge. Lucille could barely contain herself, even jumping in place. She ran to me first and wrapped me in a giant, joyous hug. “Jul! Four pounds, six shillings! That’s amazing! No one has ever gone for that much. And to Roger Kline! He’s so good-looking.”
I shot her dragon eyes, and she recoiled, recalling that I didn’t care if Roger Kline or the Man on the Moon had been victorious. I wasn’t going to play the charade for her, not when she knew the truth of it. But for Mother, who seemed immensely pleased with the prospects of the winning bidder, I bit my lip and smiled. And, of course, my father looked proud.
I excused myself to walk the grounds while the auction progressed, making a wide arc around the walled garden so that no one would find me, especially Roger. I was in no mood for adulation right now and didn’t care to continue the pretense.
I found a tree stump to sit on and watched the gaiety from a distance. My mind was numb, and my legs were tired. I was looking forward to going home and celebrating a job well done tomorrow. Tonight only despondency would be my companion.
At the conclusion of the auction, Lucille found me and tried to pull me toward the dance floor—it seemed that there was no lack of gentlemen asking her for my whereabouts. I asked her to relay that I was feeling ill and told her to tell my parents that I would be walking home. I gave her the keys to the Bentley and hoped that she would find it unharmed.
The light from the moon was brilliant, and it made walking the familiar path easier. The people in the few cars that passed looked bewildered at the sight of the lone girl in the elegant dress, mascara painting trails of woe on her face. One bearing friends of my parents offered me a ride, and while it was tempting to give my aching feet a break, I stayed the course. Stubborn, like my brother.
A mile from home, the heel of my left shoe broke and I stumbled to the ground. Blood ran down my leg, and I felt shards of gravel piercing my skin. The throbbing was so intense that I could have sworn it was audible. I sat down and hugged my knees to my chest. Great, I thought. It can’t get any worse than this.
Then thunder cracked through the sky, and I felt the first of what would surely be many raindrops.
I looked around in what was quickly becoming a torrential downpour, and I saw in the distance a barn. I’d walked past it often and thought it was a blight on the landscape, with its peeling red paint and sagging doors. It was out of place in a city, one of those occasional plots where the family had owned it for centuries and had not given in to the development surging against its borders. But it was a welcome sanctuary at this moment. I pulled myself up and started to hobble toward it, unbalanced on my shoes.
“Here, let me help you!” a voice from behind me called out. A man stepped forward and wrapped his arm around my waist, helping me walk in the direction of the barn. I shuddered at the realization that I was alone in the dark with a stranger, but I did not have a choice unless I wanted to continue on in the storm. I couldn’t see him because my eyes were closed against the heavy droplets, and I whispered a desperate prayer to a God I seldom spoke to.
Letting go of me, he opened the door with both hands. It made a piercingly shrill scream, and appeared to be off its tracks. He waved me inside, where the malodor of farm animals made my nose prickle, and their neighs and baas and groans were unnerving. I shivered in my dress and was once again aware of the pain in my leg. I waved my hands out in the pitch-blackness, utterly disoriented. He told me to wait, closed the barn door with a heave, and fumbled until he found a lantern along the wall. He stood in silhouette as he lit it before approaching me to put his jacket around my shoulders. I tugged the coat tight around me. It smelled good—like earth and cologne.
I wiped my hands across my hair and face as he took my hand and led me over a hay-scattered floor. My breath caught as I looked up. It was Kyle. What a way for him to see me, dripping with rain and tears. At least I had the rain to blame, disguising the tears. Or they could be attributed to my pain. The visible one on my leg. The deeper one was unseen.
I tightened my lips to prevent myself from saying the things that I really wanted to say, and let a meek “Thank you” escape instead.
He didn’t answer but found a pail and overturned it so that I could sit. He rubbed his hands up and down my arms, shoulder to elbow, trying to warm me up. A month ago this gesture would have sent chills—good chills—through me, but right now I was only distracted by imagining how disheveled I must have looked to him.
In the dim light, he was as attractive as I had remembered, and my resentment softened against my better judgment.
He smiled at me briefly, and then moved his hands along his arms, back and forth, until he was warmer. They looked strong and masculine. I wondered what it would be like to hold them.
Foolish girl. There you go again. Was it Lucille’s voice in my head or my own?
My teeth no longer chattering, I expressed my gratitude with more sincerity. He had made a habit of earning my goodwill. Kyle found a rickety milking stool, and scooted it next to me. He sat with elbows on his knees and hands together.
“My pleasure,” he said. “We can’t have young ladies wandering alone in the dark and rain by themselves.”
“I was on my way home, and I didn’t have much further to go.”
“I know, but then you might have contracted pneumonia, and if your parents knew that I could have prevented it, they might just call up the Bootle Home and have me dismissed.”
A grin had spread across his face, and just that quickly we were back bantering in the kitchen of Bootle Home. “Maybe I should tell them that you held me hostage in a desolate barn and see what they do then!”
“Oh, but at least you wouldn’t be dying from the elements. I think I could talk them into pardoning me.”
“It’s my word against yours.”
“Well, then I’ll have to treat you like the lady that you are, and hope for the best.”
I didn’t have a response for that, so I asked him how he’d found me.
“I followed you,” he said with candor. “I was on my way home after the festival when I saw you walking away. You looked upset, and I worried about you making it back safely. I kept my distance so that I didn’t bother you, and I would have left as soon as you got in.”
I couldn’t let him know the true cause of my distress.