London. November 1862. Six Months Later
There was half an hour before her next appointment. Esme sat down at her desk and pulled the folder labelled Shoreditch towards her. The images were of cramped, dark, and gloomy streets. Brick buildings in various states of crumbling disrepair, some with the windows boarded up, some with paper where the glass should have been. She had taken the photographs at various times in daylight at the end of September, but even if the sun had shone, it had not penetrated. Leafing carefully through the prints, she came to the more singular studies she had made. A water pump surrounded by a pool of stagnant water. A shop selling second-hand boots. A bone-weary washerwoman with sunken eyes. A brother and sister perched on a step, big-eyed and golden-haired children, their beauty a poignant contrast to their underfed bodies, ragged clothes, bare, filthy feet. They were good photographs. Some of her best work. She had no idea if she had delivered what her client had requested. She had heard nothing since she had delivered the album, receiving her fee in return.
Esme picked up the framed photograph of Guy she had taken in the cottage. She had heard nothing from him since the morning after the ball, after they made love. After he told her he loved her. "And I love you," she said to his image, setting the frame back down. When he left her cottage, she had fallen back into bed and lain, dry-eyed and stony-faced for hours, between the sheets that smelled of their lovemaking, telling herself that she had done the right thing, the only thing. She told herself so again, but the pain of missing him, the niggling feeling that she had made a huge mistake, persisted.
Where was he? What was he doing? Had he forgotten her? Had he realised he didn't really love her? No one had ever said those words to her before. Not even her husband. She had never made love before, not real love. She had not missed the intimacy of her married life in her four years as a widow, but that one night with Guy had woken her body up, and it refused to go back to sleep, tormenting her with the memories of that night.
She missed him more every day. She told herself that she had been perfectly happy before she met him, and every day she tried to be perfectly happy again. She had her work. She had her independence. She was lonely. The Shoreditch commission had given her hope, but nothing more had come of it.
The doorbell for the studio rang. Esme smoothed down her hair and got to her feet, shaking out her gown. It was raining again, she noted from the window on the landing. The person standing on her doorstep was hidden by a large black umbrella, but it was clearly a man and not the woman she was expecting. She opened the front door a mere crack, peering through the gap. "May I help you?"
"I am hoping that we can help each other."
"Guy?" Esme stared up at him, wondering for a moment if she was dreaming. His skin was paler. There were dark shadows under his eyes. But he was real. So very, devastatingly, delightfully real. Her poor heart leapt, and a smile crept over her face. "Guy?"
"May I come in?"
"Of course." She opened the door wide and watched, her heart thumping, the words she had spoken so many times to his photographic image struggling to be spoken to the man himself, and her body threatening to betray her by throwing itself into his arms. He, however, was making no attempt to touch her, folding up his umbrella and placing it in the hall stand, hanging up his hat and coat. "I'm expecting a client any moment now," Esme said.
"A ruse, I'm afraid. I invented Miss Pickford." Guy retrieved a large package from the inside pocket of his greatcoat. "This is for you."
Still dazed, she led the way into her studio, which had been set up to take the usual carte de visite portrait for a young debutante, the pillar ready for her to prop herself against. There were only two chairs, set side by side out of view of the camera. She waved Guy to one, then stood helplessly, clutching the package. "Do you want tea?"
"I want you to take a look at that," he said.
She sat down beside him and untied the string to reveal a large album. "Shoreditch, 1862," she read, and opening it up found the first of her photographs. "How did you get these?"
"I commissioned them. Another ruse I'm afraid. I must admit I had no idea what you'd capture, but these far exceed my expectations."
"But why? What for? Why are you here, Guy?"
He stared down at his hands, which she noticed now were so tightly clasped they were white at the knuckles. When he spoke, there was a tremor in his voice. "I prepared a speech," he said, with a shaky smile. "I've made enough speeches these last few months, I thought it would be easier that way, but I've never made a speech as important as this one."
He got to his feet. "No, listen to me, Esme. That's all I ask, that you listen." Ushering her over to the chair, he gently sat her down. "You were right, in many ways, in what you said to me six months ago. I hadn't thought it through. I wanted to say, let the world go hang, nothing matters as long as we're together, but you saw as I did not that it wasn't that simple. I knew what I didn't want, and that was the life my brother and Lord Armstrong had concocted for me, but I didn't have an alternative lined up."
"And now you do?"
"Yes, and no. Max was furious with me at first, but I have his wife to thank for making him accept, if not understand, why I can't marry Lord Armstrong's niece, or anyone else, while I'm in love with someone else. No, don't interrupt, Esme, it's a fact and it won't change, though I didn't mean to mention it so soon. I need to tell you what I've been doing first. You've no idea how much I've missed you."
"I have," she said softly. "Truly."
He smiled at that, took a step towards her then halted. "Business first. The album. I"ve been writing. In fact, I've become a journalist, and I'm being paid for it, too. I don't use my own name, but the one I've assumed is becoming widely read. In fact, I have a book coming out to accompany those photographs. If you're amenable, the intention is to sell the two together."
"But who would buy such a thing?"
"I wondered too, but I'm assured there's a market for it, not only here, but in America, would you believe? It was my idea, but the money is coming from— Oh, it doesn't matter right now. You see, it occurred to me, after I left Killellan Manor, when I was feeling quite wretched, that instead of words, I might make more impact with images. To show people what was going on in the real world, rather than trying to force them to imagine, you know? And that's when I got the idea of the commission. This isn't the only thing I've done, though."
Esme listened, astounded, as he described the pamphlets and articles he'd written, the second book he had drafted, smiling at his enthusiasm, lost in admiration at his stubborn determination to find a way to evoke change.
"What do you think?" he asked, coming to sit beside her and taking her hands. "We will never be well off, and there will be times when we will have to scrape by, but we'll be together, Esme, working together, and travelling together, and—what do you think?"
"You sound like someone who wants to change the world."
Guy laughed self-consciously. "We won't do that, but we might open people's eyes, and if a very small number of them take action, we'll have achieved something, won't we?"
"So you want me to be your business partner?"
"My business partner. And my wife."
He paled as he dropped to his knees, but his voice was certain and the look in his eyes—she recognised it from her own mirror. Love. Esme's mouth went dry. Her heart began to race.
"I love you with all my heart, Esme. Will you take a chance on the rest of your life and spend it with me? Will you be my true and equal partner in everything? Will you marry me?"
He did not promise the road ahead would be easy, and that was what made up her mind. "Yes," Esme said, knowing that she was taking a leap in the dark, but knowing he would be by her side when she took it. Knowing that she did not want to endure another month like these last six. She dropped to her knees beside him. "I love you," she said, for the first time. "I love you," she said, as he pulled her into his arms. "I love you so much."
"And I love you, my darling Esme," Guy said. Then, as their lips met. "Forever."
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