When he saw his mother that night before supper, she didn’t look as if anything was wrong. It really had sounded as if his mother had been hurt, but she didn’t have any bruises, and she didn’t sound sick. Hugh started to ask her about it, but Freddie stomped on his foot.
Freddie didn’t do things like that without a reason; Hugh kept his mouth shut.
For the next few months Hugh watched his parents carefully. It was only then that he realized that he almost never saw them together in the same room. If they ate supper together in the dining room, he would not know; the children dined in the nursery.
When he did see them at the same time it was very difficult to determine what their feelings toward the other might be; it wasn’t as if they spoke to each other. Months would pass, and Hugh could almost imagine that everything was perfectly fine.
And then they would hear it again. And he knew that everything was not perfectly fine. And that there was nothing he could do about it.
When Hugh was ten, his mother succumbed to a fever brought on by a dog bite (and a small bite at that, but it had turned ugly very quickly). Hugh grieved for her as much as he might grieve for anyone he saw for twenty minutes each evening, and he finally stopped listening each night as he tried to fall asleep.
But by this point it did not matter. Hugh could no longer fall asleep because he was thinking. He lay in his bed, and his mind buzzed and raced and flipped and generally did everything except calm itself down. Freddie told him that he needed to imagine his mind as a blank page, which actually made Hugh laugh, because if there was one thing his mind would never be able to duplicate, it was a blank page. Hugh saw numbers and patterns all day long, in the petals of a flower, in the cadence of a horse’s hooves on the ground. Some of these patterns caught his immediate attention, but the rest lingered at the back of his mind until he was quiet and in bed. That was when they crept back, and suddenly everything was adding and subtracting and rearranging, and did Freddie really think he could sleep through that?
(Freddie did not, as a matter of fact. After Hugh told him what went on in his head when he was trying to fall asleep, Freddie never mentioned the blank page again.)
Now there were many reasons he did not drift easily into sleep. Sometimes it was his leg, with its nagging clench of muscle. Sometimes it was his suspicious nature, forcing him to keep one metaphorical eye on his father, whom Hugh would never trust completely, despite his current upper hand in their battles. And sometimes it was that same old thing—his mind humming with numbers and patterns, unable to shut itself off.
But Hugh had a new hypothesis: he could not sleep because he had simply got used to this particular brand of frustration. Somehow he had trained his body to think that he was supposed to lie there like a log for hours before finally giving up and resting. He’d had plenty of nights with no reasonable explanation for his insomnia. His leg might feel almost normal, and his father not even a dot in his mind, and still sleep would elude him.
Lately, however, it had been different.
He still wasn’t finding it easy to fall asleep. He probably never would. But the reason why . . .
That was the difference.
In the years since his injury, there had been plenty of nights that had found him awake and wishing for a woman. He was a man, and except for his stupid left thigh, all parts of him were in working order. There was nothing unnatural about it, just a lot that was uncomfortable.
But now that woman had a face, and a name, and even though Hugh behaved with perfect propriety throughout the day, when he was lying in his bed at night, his breathing would grow ragged and his body burned. For the first time in his life, he longed for the numbers and patterns that plagued his mind. Instead all he could think about was that moment a few days earlier, when Sarah tripped over the rug in the library and he’d caught her before she fell. For one ecstatic moment, his fingers had brushed against the side of her breast. She’d been wearing velvet, and God knows what else underneath, but he’d felt the curve of her, the soft tenderness, and the ache that had been growing inside of him turned rampant.
And so he wasn’t particularly surprised when he rolled over fitfully in his bed, picked up his pocket watch, and saw that it was half three in the morning. He’d tried reading, as that sometimes nodded him off, but it hadn’t worked. He’d spent an hour doing really boring equations in his head, but that hadn’t done the trick, either. Finally, he admitted defeat and walked to the window. If he could not sleep, at least he could look at something other than the insides of his eyelids.
And there she was.
He was stunned, and yet not surprised at all. Sarah Pleinsworth had been haunting his dreams for more than a week; of course she’d be out on the lawn in the middle of the night the one time he stood at his window. There was some sort of insane logic to it.
Then he blinked himself out of his stupor, because what the hell was she doing? It was half three in the morning, and if he could see her from his window, at least two dozen others could, too. Hugh let out a string of expletives that would have done any sailor proud as he strode to the wardrobe and yanked out a pair of trousers.
And yes, he could stride when absolutely necessary. It wasn’t pretty, and he’d feel it later, but it did the trick. A few moments later he was more or less dressed (and the parts that were “less” were covered by his coat), and he was moving through the halls of Whipple Hill as quickly as he could without waking up the entire house.
He paused briefly just outside the rear door. His leg was nearly in spasms, and he knew that if he didn’t stop and shake it out, it would collapse beneath him. The delay gave him time to sweep his gaze across the lawn, looking for her. She’d been wearing a coat, but it hadn’t completely covered her white gown, so she should be easy to spot . . .