The sounds of water, wind, trees, and night insects swell around us. Under that, the sound of Jamie’s heartbeat in my ear, his breath lifting my head in an elemental cadence. There’s a fragrance in the air that I didn’t notice before, a constricting. Earth preparing for winter. I open my eyes slightly and can just glimpse the water over the side of the punt, the moonlight on the surface a study in light and dark. I gently rub the wool sweater at Jamie’s shoulder, absently fingering the burls.
It’s amazing how much you notice when you’re not having sex.
If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”), “Untitled,” 1855
This is ridiculous.”
“Yeah.” Jamie scratches his eyebrow.
“No, I mean . . .” I walk into the center of the empty ballroom, throwing my arms out. “This is ridiculous, Jamie.”
“I quite agree.” He nods.
“You have a ballroom.” A Victorian town-house-sized ballroom, but still. I stare at him. “How did this happen?”
Jamie worries his finger over a chip in the carved marble-faced fireplace. “My mother’s aunt, Charlotte. She had no children. When I came up to Oxford for undergraduate I was kind to her. Went marketing, changed lightbulbs, did the washing up, that sort of thing. She died last year. I’d no idea she’d bequeath it to me. I started coming up from Cambridge at the weekends to work on it.”
I take in the large room with its gleaming wood floor, huge windows overlooking the quaint street, and very real crystal chandelier. “It’s beautifully preserved. It’s like a set from a Jane Austen movie.”
“I’m rather proud, really. Charlotte absolutely gutted it after the war. She was a dear woman, but had no sense of history. I’ve endeavored to bring it back to its original state. It’s almost done now. I’ve worked with a conservation specialist who refers me to accredited woodworkers, stonemasons, ironmongers, and the like. I also do a fair bit of the work myself.” He looks up at the ceiling.
“And now you get to enjoy it. Live here. Raise a family here.” He shrugs noncommittally. I blink. “You’re not going to sell it, are you?”
“No.” I relax slightly. “I’m going to donate it. It will make a fine museum once I’m finished. It’s finished.” He looks back to the ceiling for a quiet moment.
A moment I can’t help but interrupt. “Seriously? But why would you—”
He cuts me off, looking at his watch. “Must check on dinner. Come with?” He holds out his hand and I take it, following him out the gilded double doors and down the grand staircase, back to the first floor.
“ARE ALL THESE old portraits decoration, or actual family?” I call out from the drawing room to Jamie, who is in the kitchen doing something miraculous with chicken.
“Actual,” he calls back.
Amid all the staid paintings of women in ruffled frocks and gentlemen with their hands on sword hilts, there’s a photograph above the fireplace. An elegant woman sits in a chair, three men fanned out behind her. The setting, a book-laden room. I recognize Jamie, tuxedo’d and in his late teens. The staging reflects the stoicism of the figures in the antique portraits, but there’s one major difference: this family looks happy. Loving. Proud. Slightly mischievous. There’s an ease in Jamie’s face, something I only get glimpses of in adult Jamie. The mother and father are the definition of what the Victorians would call a “handsome couple.”
I look more closely at the father, the man I saw barreling out of Jamie’s office the day of our first tute. He’s about twenty pounds lighter in the photo, his hair only silver at the temples. Seeing the comfort of the family, even with the manufactured aloofness of the setting and wardrobe, I have to wonder what happened.
“Your mother’s gorgeous,” I call out.
“She’s taken, I’m afraid.”
There’s another boy in the picture, an athletic-looking younger one, also tuxedo’d. “Who’s the handsome guy?”
“No, the handsome one.”
“Right, my brother.”
I turn away from the fireplace, looking into the dining room. The table is large enough to seat fourteen. Jamie’s set a place at each end, indicated by the full glasses of wine, silverware, and napkins, all expertly set. He’s also lit a tall line of candles going down the center of the table, illuminating the swirling mahogany of the table’s grain.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was weirdly romantic. Wooing kind of stuff. Stuff that should have happened six weeks ago. Had we decided to actually date, that is. I tell myself that the setting is misleading. No wonder we haven’t come here before. He probably didn’t want me to misinterpret anything.
“Dinner is served,” Jamie says, sweeping into the room carrying two plates, bringing the most delicious aroma with him. Garlic and onions, wine and fire. “Please,” he says, nodding at the chair as he sets a plate down. I eagerly take my seat. He glides to the opposite end and settles in comfortably. He belongs here. The environment in no way overpowers him. He fits.
“Jamie,” I say reverently, staring at my plate. “This is amazing. Everything. Thank you.”
“You say that now,” he hedges. “You haven’t tried it yet.” He cuts gingerly into the tender chicken.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Coq au vin,” he answers, inspecting a piece of meat on his fork.
I sip my wine. Delicious. I take a bite of chicken. I had no idea chicken could taste like this. “Oh my God,” I moan. “Jamie!”
“Call my name like that once more and we shan’t make it to dessert,” he warns.
I look at him, raise a brow. “I’m ready when you are.” Even sitting fifteen feet away from each other, our eyes collide, threatening . . . what, exactly? I break first, turning back to my plate. “Where did you learn how to make this?”
“And who’s Smithy?” But Jamie’s more involved with his chicken than the conversation. “Jamie?”
“The cook,” he says absently.
“You had a cook?”
“Have. Still works for my parents.”
I narrow my eyes. “Do you have a butler?”
Jamie takes up his wine and says, smiling, “Who has a cook and not a butler? Really, darling.”
I smile back. “What about a valet? A scullery maid? A first and second footman?”
He sighs heavily. “Let us accept the fact that my family is, I believe the American vernacular would be, ‘loaded,’ and move on, shall we?” Jamie air-toasts me, that charming smile still on his face.
“Does your mom work?”
“Ah!” Jamie says, standing abruptly. “I know what I forgot.” He disappears around the corner into the drawing room. Moments later, the opera La Traviata softly fills the house.
Goose bumps. All over.
Jamie returns and goes back to his food. I go back to mine. “So”—I try again—“does your mother have a profession?”