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Starlight at Eventide  by Ariel

Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 2


She'd done nothing but sleep, for years it seemed, but he was always there, holding and encouraging her, his loving voice and gentle hands always at the ready.  She snuggled against his warmth.  The slow swaying of the hammock might have lulled her, but she had no desire to close her eyes again. 

She was feeling well at last.  Though the doctor had pronounced her cured, not without some lingering effects, many months before, she hadn't begun to really feel well until summer came.  At that very moment, she felt positively lively.


"Hmm?"  He did not open his eyes.

"How are you feeling?" she asked softly.  He smiled and cuddled her closer, but still did not stir.  She canted an eyebrow as if at a challenge and squirmed against him to get a better vantage.  Her struggles did rouse him then and he looked down at her curiously through veiled lashes. 

She had never been able to resist him; not from the first moment they met, when decorum and reason told her she must, nor at any time after.  And now, with his soft mouth innocently relaxed, his cheeks charmingly sun kissed, and his glimmering copper curls toppling boyishly into his eyes, and all of those delights and more wrapped lovingly about her, she couldn't help but respond.  She kissed him hungrily, clearly inviting him to reciprocate.  He grunted in surprise, but she did not relent and soon had her arms wrapped around his neck and her tongue teasing the roof of his mouth. 

He returned the kiss, but she could feel that he was startled by her actions.  He had not expected this maneuver and there was a strange sort of hesitation in his touch.  At last he broke off and looked down at her, relieved but subtly uneasy.

"Well, now," he cried, sitting up in the hammock and taking her into his arms.  "You must be getting better if you are entertaining those sorts of thoughts!"  He laughed out loud and hugged her, then bent and gave her a tender kiss of his own; a jubilant, amused but oddly chaste touch, on her cheek.  "We must tell mother!" he grinned.

"Tell her what?" Estella laughed. 

"Why, that you are nearly back to your old self again, of course!  I've been putting off a trip into the Southfarthing and Tuckborough for months because I couldn't bear leaving you feeling so poorly, but..." He paused and then a hopeful smile crossed his face. "If you are indeed feeling that much better, perhaps you could go with me?  Diamond and Pippin would be so grateful to see you.  They've been dreadfully worried.  Do you think you'd be able to manage it?"

He looked so like one of her boys begging for a treat that she laughed out loud. 

"I would love to accompany you," she said.  "I feel perfectly fine.  It's true, I still need a bit of feeding up, but I can do that as well at Great Smials as here."

His blue eyes glittered with delight and he held her close.  "Good," he sighed.  "I doubt I could have left you here anyway.  You were dear to me before this illness, but you are a treasure now."  And then he bent and this time kissed her lips.

Estella again felt his strange reservation.  His touch was sweet and loving, but it was a kiss he might give a sister, or daughter, or invalid, not a wife.  There was no answer to Estella's newly reawakened desire in it. 

She was being rebuked, albeit very gently.  In twelve years of marriage, though she'd rarely had to ask, he had never before refused her affections.  The summer breeze suddenly felt chill on her skin.  Perhaps he did not feel this was the time for pleasure?  He had, after all, given all of his energies to seeing to her needs these past months.  Perhaps there were duties he had long forsaken that needed his attention now?  She drew back and hastily composed herself again.  That had to be what the matter was.  She let him help her to feet.  She had voiced her readiness; perhaps when the Hall's affairs were in order once again, he would come to her.

She licked her lips, savouring his kiss as they walked down the slopes of Brandy Hill.  He smiled at her, innocently, cheerfully even, as if unaware of the significance of what he had done.  Her discomfiture grew.  There was no promise in his eyes either.  She stumbled on the path and his hand was instantly at her waist, guiding her, his warm voice encouraging and sweet, but though his touch was gentle, there was no passion in it.  She thanked him automatically, but the chill was settling in her heart.  What had happened between them?  Her memory of both the fever and the weeks after it were still hazy, but she could recall no change that would have foretold his strange temperance. 

Fear made her clutch his hand, but it felt as if that for which she had playfully reached was already lost to her.  Had she done something wrong?  Had her long illness changed her so much that her husband didn't want her anymore?  The thought lingered in her mind like a secret shame and fed on the self-doubts and vanities of youth that she had almost forgotten.  Surely it could not be.  They were husband and wife, deeply in love.  How could she doubt it?  He drew her on with the same kind of gentle encouragement she had seen him use with their sons, the same loving murmur he'd used to entice Theoden to take his first steps and Peradic to mount his pony.  

But one could love without desire. 

The breeze became positively frigid.


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