Monday 2nd June 1862
Esme studied Guy through the lens of her camera. She had positioned him behind the desk in her tiny sitting room, with the bright light of the early afternoon sunshine streaming through the window behind him. His coat was draped over the back of the chair. An album of her photographs, which he had been studying, sat in front of him on the blotter. His hair was rumpled from their embrace. His lips were bee-stung, as were her own, from their kisses.
"Don't move," she said, as he made to turn the page. "Only a few more minutes."
She ought to have refused his offer to accompany her after she had taken today's photographs of breakfast being served on the terrace. She had every intention of doing so until he asked, and she found herself smiling and nodding instead of shaking her head. She ought not to have invited him in, but she had, and as she worked on developing the images, she was acutely aware of him, her body already alive to his presence, longing for his mouth and his touch, longing for more intimate embraces, for the lovemaking she had lain awake dreaming of. They had fallen into each other's arms as soon as she had finished, their kisses resuming where they had left off yesterday.
The photograph she was taking now was her attempt to put some safe distance between them, to allow herself some time to regain some control of the storm of feelings he had unleashed. It frightened her how easily her resolve crumbled in his company, how quickly the smouldering fire they had lit yesterday became an inferno today. She didn't recognise herself. She could easily become addicted to this man, and to the woman she became in his company.
And then where would she be! Unhappy and malcontent, unable to appreciate the perfectly good life she had worked so hard to make for herself. Even if it was passionless. Even if she was lonely. She was safe and secure and more importantly in charge of her own destiny, and that's what mattered. And she had her work.
The exposure was complete. "There," Esme said, "you can move now."
Taking the plate, she made straight for her darkroom. The image which emerged was satisfyingly clear. The photograph portrayed a serious man, with an intelligent brow, but she had also captured the latent sensuality in him. It wasn't only his dishevelled hair and informal dress, there was a—a smouldering, she thought as she studied it, and a warmth too, in the half smile that played on his mouth. The image disturbed her, for there was in the subject someone who appealed to her, not only physically but on a more profound level, an attraction she could not afford to indulge. It also showed her a stranger.
She sensed him approach and stepped back to allow him to look at himself. "What do you think?"
Guy was silent for a long moment, a slight frown pulling his brows together. "Lord Armstrong might take me more seriously, if he saw this."
"From what I've seen, you already have his seal of approval."
He shrugged. "Blood, heritage, breeding, manners. He's not interested in anything else."
"I don't really know anything about you." Esme stripped off her cuffs and apron. "What do you do, Guy? I mean, how do you spend your time, for I can't imagine you frittering your days away attending parties and hunts and balls."
"A gentleman of leisure?" He grinned. "No, I'd be bored rigid. Shall we sit outside in your little garden?"
Now was the time to suggest he return to his house party, but she told herself as she followed him outside that this might be her only chance to satisfy her curiosity about him, perhaps even discover something which would put an end to his allure. She sat down beside him on the bench. "I don't even know where you live."
"I have rooms in London, and that's where I spend most of my time. I have a small inheritance from my mother, enough to keep me very comfortably, though it falls far short of what Lord Armstrong considers suitable for a married man." Guy plucked a handful of long grass and began to weave it into a complicated plait. "I occupy myself doing what my brother calls good works. Helping those who need it most, raising funds for schools, public baths, better housing." Lifting his head from his work, he smiled sheepishly. "That sounds terribly worthy, doesn't it?"
"It sounds terribly interesting," Esme said, surprised. "Tell me more."
She listened with growing admiration and astonishment as he described the causes he so fervently believed should be addressed. His own role he dismissed as a writer of begging letters and pamphlets, a mere dogsbody. His persistent modesty was endearing, as was his enthusiasm, his optimism, his belief that he could change things. Far from discovering something to dislike in him, she was fascinated.
"What I really think though, is that such projects shouldn't rely on charity. They should be funded from the public purse. I know," Guy said, misreading her expression, "you're thinking that I am being totally unrealistic…"
"I"m not thinking that at all. You are an idealist, you have a vision of a better world. It is—inspiring."
"Inspiring and upsetting, by the looks of you."
She sniffed, shaking her head and blinking. "I wish—it is simply that your enthusiasm reminded me of myself, when I first began to understand the power of the camera. I had so many ideas, so many stories I wanted to tell. I used to imagine that it would be me who would show the world that photographs were art."
"You talk as if you are an old woman. As if you have given up on your dream."
"I have to earn my living. There's very little time for anything else."
"But you make time. The photographs you take of real people, not fakes like me…"
"You are the most real person I have met in a very long time." It was the truth, but like so many of her thoughts and feelings for this man, it shouldn't have been spoken. She shouldn't be encouraging his romantic nature. But the way he was gazing into her eyes now, as if he could read her thoughts—oh, it would be very easy to believed they were destined to meet, destined to mean something.
It took a huge effort, but she dragged her gaze away. "Life forces one to make compromises," she said harshly. "It is all very well to dream, but it is money that makes the world turn."
"You've said that before."
"Because it's true. Marriage to an Armstrong would give you privileged access to those in power, the people who could help you make some of your dreams a reality. Have you thought of that?"
"Of course I have! It would also require me to align my politics with Lord Armstrong's."
"Unless you align yourself with someone, you're not likely to achieve any of your goals."
"Compromise, that's what you're suggesting I do, just as you have? And has that made you happy, Esme?" Seeing her flinch, he threw the plaited grass on the ground, taking her hands. "I'm sorry. That was unworthy and unfair."
She snatched her hands away. "You can't have it every way, Guy."
"I know, but to marry on the off chance that my marriage might allow me to do some more good seems wrong to me. Besides, the real issue remains what it has been from the beginning. I know what I ought to do. I know which direction my duty lies. But the more I try to imagine taking that vital step, the more wrong it feels."
"You can't have thought so when you came here, or you wouldn't have come."
"I thought I could do it. Then I met you and…"
"No!" Esme jumped up from the bench. "I am completely irrelevant. You are struggling to come to terms with a momentous decision. You are torn, and understandably uncertain, and I have been a—a sounding board and a distraction, that's all."
"That's rubbish. You are not simply a distraction. That photograph you took of me shows that you understand me so much better than anyone, even my brother."
"Perhaps even better than you do, Guy. I'm much older than you."
"Four. You envy me my vocation, my independence, I know you do, and that has made you view your own situation in a different light, but the two do not compare. Marriage could be a stepping stone for you, a door opening all sorts of possibilities."
"Except the possibility of marrying a woman I love."
"You haven't even met Lord Armstrong's niece yet. For all you know, she might be your ideal woman."
"I don't want an ideal woman. I don't want perfection. I can't imagine anything more boring. I want a woman with a mind of her own. A woman with the spirit to challenge me. A woman who sees me, Esme. As you do. I have never met anyone like you."
"I wish you would not say such things." Because they were precisely what she would have dreamed of hearing when she was younger and naïve and romantic—because she had been romantic, before life and marriage made a realist of her.
"I say them because they are true. When I am doing my duty, playing my part—you see that's it, Esme. I'm acting. But with you I can be myself."
"You are struggling to fit in, that's all. The people you are mixing with are some of the most influential and powerful in the land. What you're feeling for me—what you think you are feeling for me, it's a—a product of the situation," she responded desperately, needing to convince herself as much as he, for once again his words had resonated, and she dare not let them. "We are both outsiders, as you said. And there is the added complication of a physical attraction."
"It's more than physical."
"It's not, Guy." She knew as she spoke that she was lying, and that despite all her protestations, the pair of them were in very deep water. If she did not put a halt to the matter, they would very likely drown. "Listen to me," Esme said, in a very different tone. "We have only known each other a few days. When this party breaks up, our paths are unlikely to cross again. You have never met anyone like me before because I am a woman determined to make her own way in a man's world, and that gives me novelty value, but that's all."
"Is that how you see me? A novel way of passing the time?"
"I should not be passing the time with you at all. I'm sorry, Guy," Esme said, her heart heavy but her resolve now solid, "we can't be alone together again."
"What I'm feeling is neither temporary, nor a product of the situation, as you put it. What I feel is so real…"
"That is how all infatuations feel, until they pass."
She had meant to anger him with her flippant tone, but Guy smiled sardonically, shaking his head. "Who are you trying to convince, Esme?"
"Both of us."
He reached for her hand again, but stopped himself. "Will you tell me why—honestly?"
"Because this isn't real, Guy." A lump rose in her throat. "Anyone seeing us together like this will guess what is going on. If we are caught, I will be dismissed. Everything I have worked so hard for over the last four years will be destroyed, for my success depends as much on my reputation for discretion as my skill with the camera. It would ruin me, and it would ruin you, too. There would be a terrible scandal, and you would ruin your chance of making this extremely advantageous match…"
"…that I am becoming convinced I don't want to make." Guy frowned heavily. "I don't want to ruin you. That's the very last thing I want."
Tears smarted in her eyes. "Then you must stay away from me. Please."
Guy stared at her for a long moment, and she willed herself to remain firm. Whatever he saw in her expression convinced him. "Very well."
He left without looking back, leaving the garden gate swinging back and forth, mirroring her own horribly conflicted emotions.
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