By Elinor Woodhouse
(Dedicated to Lady Gato for her birthday)
It was easy enough to spot her
for his senses were already attuned to her the moment he walked in to the
ballroom. The ruby red dress she was wearing tapered to her body, her hair
cascaded in golden waves along her cheeks. He had been going in circles for the
past hour, turning each corner, looking for her in all the public areas of the
ship. Had she chosen to stay at her cabin, he would have had no choice but to
linger in the dining room salon to wait for her. Music wafted through as the
guests milled around to serve themselves, some people were dancing to the music
of the Blue Danube. How did he get here?
He remembered that the lights were already on in the city and the foghorn signaled the imminent departure of the ship when he bounded to the counter. He remembered his heart banging against his chest, his unruly hair stinging his eyes; for there was no way he was going to miss her! The line that preceded him was the longest he had ever felt in his life, he wanted to commit violence to all the people in front of him just so he could get to the front at once, but he held himself in check. Instead, he shrugged himself deep into his jacket and clutched the valise in his hand, willed himself to take deep breaths and started rehearsing what he would say to her. He debated the words he will say to her. How will he tell her that the vision of her in that rundown theatre gave him the courage to fulfill his duty to the lady who had once saved his life? That he had finally broken free of the shackles of guilt and responsibility and the lady was walking again? That he was free? Was her heart still free? He didn’t know; he journeyed from the Empire State to the Prairie State expecting her to receive him with open arms, but when he arrived; he found out she was leaving today on this ship. His heart was pounding fiercely when it was his turn to ask for his passage; just one more cabin, first class; the purser said, and he remembered sighing with relief. The Fates were kind; they were still giving him one more chance to redeem himself. The purser confirmed that she was on board; he grabbed the voucher and bounded up the plank to locate his room, eschewing the first class pathway and jostling the other passengers who gave him dirty looks. The well-appointed room he was assigned failed to sooth his jangled nerves; as soon as he arrived, he freshened up and went out to comb the entire ship in search of his quarry.
So now here he was; and she was just within his reach.
The fog begun to settle over the ship as it slowly pulled away, reminding her of that fateful New Year’s Eve night three years ago, on a ship like this when she first met him. She sighed wistfully as the harbor became smaller in the distance; she was leaving her past now, leaving the man she loved, off to the chalet in Scotland. She needed to get away and forget her heartache, so what better way than to venture to the land of bagpipes and tartan check of her prince’s heritage? It was also her heritage now as his adopted child and yet she could not help thinking again, was her sacrifice in vain? She would give anything to know that the man she loved was happy, and her happiness will be assured. She shivered as the fog became denser and brought her shawl around tighter. The music from the ballroom beckoned her and she went in to listen, but she felt a prickle on her skin. Was he here? Impossible! Her senses did not lie and sure enough, when she turned around; he was there.
He could no longer resist, he stepped forward to claim her hand as she looked up, her face bemused and wondering, her eyes full of questions. He didn’t speak; he twirled her round the ballroom to dance to their music, their waltz. He urged her closer to him, clasping her around the waist in one hand, and enclosing her hand with the other; his steps never faltering. Round and round they went, until he brought her outside the ballroom to the ship’s promenade, into the cool night air.
“I love you,” he finally spoke, his voice just a little above a whisper.
Her eyes widened. Why was he saying this? Where was his lady? Did he come here tonight to torment her? She searched around for a pithy retort, but her mind turned up blank. His touch sent shivers up her spine, but it served only to remind her that this was wrong, that he shouldn’t be here, and that the lady who loved him would surely die of a broken heart. Her heart contracted in pain.
His whole body tingled just from touching her, but oh, she didn’t love him; her complete disregard to his declaration was enough proof that her heart was no longer free. The man she lived with that long time ago finally won her, and he felt his heart break into a million pieces.
“Where is your lady…” she began.
is your man…” he interrupted.
He gawked. She gaped.
“There is no lady, I am free!” he announced seizing her closer.
“There was never a man, I have always been yours,” she cried.
Her tears fell down her cheeks and he kissed them away.
“I love you, and I shall never let you go again,” he repeated.
“I love you more and I shall forever be at your side,” she whispered.
When their lips met, she knew that his arms were where she belonged. When he claimed her mouth, he knew that he was home.