I bring his hand to my mouth now and kiss it, noticing the stains around his cuticles. He’s been feeling much better, almost completely back to normal, so he insisted on stripping and staining the floors on the second story of the house over the past few days. A psychologist would probably have a field day with the symbolism, but he just wanted to use the time away to let the floors cure and the odor dissipate.
I look up at him through my lashes, adopt a coquettish kitten voice that never fails to get an eye roll. “Do you hate me?”
On cue, Jamie rolls his eyes. “I’ve survived worse than a weekend with my family.”
I glance out the window. “You seriously grew up here?”
“Partly. Summers, holidays.”
“Shut up!” I screech when Jamie turns a corner and reveals a vista of craggy gray cliffs leading down to spring-green pastureland divided by low stone walls and dotted with shaggy highland cattle. I notice an old, abandoned gatehouse on our left, gates open. Before I can comment on its beauty, Jamie turns the Aston and we drive through it.
Oh my God.
The road stretches straight before us, bordered by towering oak trees, boughs arcing over us, tipping their leafy hats in a grand gesture of welcome. Jamie picks up speed, blowing down the lane.
Openmouthed, I stare at the house that’s just revealed itself through the copse of trees. I’m sorry, did I say house? I mean, estate. Castle. Compound. Ecosystem.
Jamie accelerates and we screech up to the house as if making a pit stop in the Indy 500. Gravel sprays as we skid to a stop. He pulls the parking brake, looks at me, and takes a deep, bearing-up breath. He opens the door and steps out. I can’t. Not yet. I can only gaze, in awe, at the sheer stone front of the house. This part of it looks like Blenheim (probably from the same time period), but the wing to the right looks older and castle-y, turrets and battlements.
As I get out of the car, the double front doors of the house fly open and Antonia steps out, clapping her hands. Another woman, as wide as she is tall with a crop of bushy white hair, waddles purposefully down the steps behind her. Wearing an apron and a towel thrown over her shoulder, she makes a beeline for Jamie, coming at him like a brick wall and engulfing him in a bosom-centric hug. She pulls back, looking stern.
“Let me look atcha!” she demands. Jamie stands up straight and holds out his arms like he’s at an army induction center. “Just as I s’pected. Too thin,” she declares, shaking her head. She jabs a pudgy thumb behind her. “Me broth’s in the house. Made it especial.”
Jamie glances at me with a warm, genuine smile I haven’t seen in a week. “Ella, this is Smithy, the love of my life. Smithy’s broth has curative properties.”
Smithy grunts in the affirmative. She takes a closer look at me, sticking out her hand. I take it. “You must be the birthday girl everyone’s makin’ such a fuss about.”
Antonia slips in to hug me, announcing, “So you’ve finally rid yourself of that dreadful stuffed-shirt professor, have you? What was his name? Doesn’t matter, you’ve done quite well for yourself. You’ve brought a gorgeous boy with you.”
“I could easily get back into this car and be off,” Jamie says, not entirely joking.
Antonia huffs. “Well, if you’re going to be a priss about it.” She goes to her son and takes him full around. Jamie kisses the top of her head. No matter what happens, I’m already so happy. Just seeing them together, here, meeting Smithy, makes the last week worth it.
Jamie puts one arm around Antonia and the other around Smithy and turns toward the house. “Now, Mother, I’ve promised Ella the grand tour and she’s quite keen. You know how she loves history, and you’re the perfect person to . . .” He trails off and stops walking. I follow his gaze to the open doorway.
William looms over us. He jerks his head. “Hello.” He looks to me. “Welcome, Eleanor.”
“Thank you,” I reply. “I’m very happy to be here.”
He turns back to Jamie, takes him in, assessing. “Jamie.”
“You’re looking rather well. As it were.”
“You as well. As it were.”
In the silence, they stare at each other. Two bulls on opposite sides of a pasture.
“Boys, please,” Antonia stage-whispers, jerking her head toward Smithy. “Must you be so effusive in front of the staff?” Smithy cackles, her laugh sounding exactly like I imagined it would. I have to bite my lip to keep from joining her.
William reddens. “Yes, well. I’ll have Colin take care of the bags and such.” With that, he turns back into the house. Jamie takes a breath and we all follow him.
ANTONIA, PEEKING INTO an under-the-stairs bathroom, says with a sly grin, “The wood on these walls was nicked from Warwick Castle during the Reformation.” Then Jamie whispers to me, “Kenilworth.” Antonia continues, “Right before my great-great-great-great-grandfather was given the house and land by James the Sixth.” (Jamie whispers, “The Fifth.”) In a fifty-foot-long gallery overlooking the pond, Antonia points to a portrait and declares, “That is Jamie’s ancestor, a MacTartanish, who hid from the English during the Troubles by dressing as a woman and living in the kitchens with the servants.” (Jamie whispers, “MacTavish; stables.”) Antonia points into a rock-walled, dungeon-looking room in a turret and announces, “Elizabeth imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots in these rooms in 1437.”
Antonia: “She escaped by rappelling down a bedsheet tied to the radiator.”
Jamie: “A medieval radiator, you see.”
Upstairs, we come to a long, wide hallway with rows of tall white doors on each side. Two across from each other are open. “This will be your room,” Antonia says, sweeping into the one on the right. I follow her and notice that my bag has appeared on a settee at the foot of a massive canopied bed, curtained with heavy antique brocade. Four huge windows overlook the vast property, all the way to the cliffs beyond. Every piece of furniture belongs in a museum.
“This is stunning.”
I’m about to gush further, but Jamie, who’s ventured farther into the room, searching for something, speaks first. “Mother, where’s my valise?”
“In the Rose Room, dear.”
Jamie’s hands find his hips. He levels a look at Antonia. “Is that so?”
She slinks for the door, coming back to me. “Your father and I thought it best. There are traditions of the house, long-standing traditions.”
“All the way back to the Eskimo invasion of 45 BC,” Jamie mutters.
Antonia leans in to me. “I’ve put slippers by your bed. The hallway floor gets rather chilly at night. Wouldn’t want you getting cold feet.” She exits to the hallway, leaving Jamie and me alone.
“What did she say?” he asks. He sounds stroppy, impatient. Jesus. Get him anywhere near William and it’s as if he filches only the most unpleasant aspects of his father’s personality.
I squeeze his arm. “We’ll be fine.”
Jamie exhales. I know why he’s upset at being separated. We haven’t had a chance to be together yet—what with his recovery, and the floors, and my, you know, sucker punching.
Jamie seems to relax. “Right. Well, then.” He looks around the room. The fleur-de-lis wallpaper, the gilded vanity and mirror, the abundance of decorative pillows. He seems reflective. It’s obviously been a while since he’s walked these rooms. When I go back to the house I grew up in, I’m always shocked at how small it is. This is clearly not that experience, but I can relate to seeing something so familiar with new eyes. “It’s rather . . . fussy,” Jamie mutters. “And cold.”