5 years later
Sighing Bethany adjusted her position. Somehow at almost thirty she didn’t feel right about crawling around in the bushes behind the schoolhouse. Surely, that was what a certain type of much younger woman did. And wasn’t that the point, though, since she and her husband Terrance had been hired by a concerned father to find out just who his rather spirited daughter was stepping out with?
Bethany had never thought that being a private investigator would require her to be dressed in men’s trousers, and hiding in the foliage around the back of a building she had spent a good deal of her life in. Their little son, Jason who was currently only three, would soon be attending the same school. What would he get up to there? Hopefully not sneaking off in the bushes.
Of course, as the thought struck her, Bethany realized just how extremely premature it was. Jason’s whole world still revolved around his wooden toy train and his favorite ginger cookies. With luck, his world would remain so innocent and pure well into his teenage years. Bethany shifted again. Being a working mother meant that she missed her little boy when she wasn’t with him and right now, she was beginning to rethink her choices. Perhaps it was time to have another. She wasn’t sure. She’d been feeling a little off lately.
“Alright, I think we’re ready,” Terrance said.
He turned away from the tintype camera he had been setting up. With the lens poking through the leaves to where they had it on good authority the two lovers met, they were hoping to catch them off guard. If the young couple didn’t suspect anything, and Bethany was certain they wouldn’t, she and Terrance would soon have the undeniable proof of the young woman’s dalliances. With that in the bag, they could finally get out of the muck.
It had rained the night before, making the ground on the edge of the woods sodden and horrible to be on. Bethany had at least had the forethought to bring along a tarpaulin to sit on or their backsides would be cold and wet as well as stiff from the hours of sitting still. They had been here since just after dawn, to make certain that no one would see them.
“Do you really think this will work?” she asked as she pulled the satchel, she had also brought, towards her. Opening the buckles, she drew out a metal flask and began to unscrew the lid. Steam erupted from inside, and the smell of coffee filled the air.
“I do,” Terrance said with a smile. His easy, relaxed manner was so far from what she was feeling, but then he’d done this sort of thing for years. He accepted the mug of steaming, pre-sweetened coffee with a smile. “Thanks. This is perfect.”
Bethany poured herself a mug, and they settled down to wait.
“Good thing the weather broke,” she said in a soft voice. “I wouldn’t like to be here in the rain.”
“It would be pointless in the rain,” Terrance said, his eyes always on the back doorstep of the schoolhouse.
It was summer holidays, and so no one should be anywhere near the school. That was why it was such a perfect meeting spot for this young couple who wanted to avoid prying eyes.
“Of course, you’re right,” she said. “Sandwich?”
“You thought of everything,” Terrance said with a chuckle. “Not only are you the most wonderful mother and beautiful woman, but you are also a genius.”
“What are you trying to butter me up for?” she asked, pretending to be suspicious. “What have you done that I might reprimand you for?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly, continuing the game. “I swear it.”
They chuckled and shared a couple of quick, coffee flavored kisses. That was one perk to working with her husband, there were always kisses up for grabs. She liked that. They got along so well, like they were best friends and not only husband and wife.
Taking a package of egg sandwiches out of the satchel she handed one to Terrance. He bit into it with gusto and sat chewing.
“What time are they supposed to be meeting?” Bethany asked, holding her sandwich for which she suddenly had little appetite. It seemed they’d been waiting for hours.
“Soon,” he said pulling out his pocket watch. “In about another hour or so.”
“And you’re certain that Benji got it right?” she asked and nibbled the crust a little.
She still felt that she should have been the one watching Missy Winters, the girl in question, as she went about her days and not Benji. To her mind, he stuck out like a sore thumb. Terrance didn’t share her opinion of his brother’s ability to blend in and said she was quite noticeable since Missy knew her on sight.
“Benji got it right,” Terrance said once he’d swallowed his mouthful of sandwich. “I really wish you’d give him credit where it’s due. He’s good at this stuff. Missy didn’t know he’d seen her placing that note behind the loose stone in the wall down by Lover’s Lane. It was the work of moments to pull the stone out, read the note, and then put it back. No one saw him, he made sure of it. They’ll be here soon. I’d bet my breakfast on it.”
“Okay,” she said, holding up her hand in surrender, sandwich and all. “Okay, don’t get upset. I was only asking.”
“Sorry,” Terrance said a little gruffly. “I’m just a little worried about him.”
“Why?” Bethany asked. From what she could see, Terrance’s once wayward brother had shaped up nicely. “Since seeing what happened to Marcus Conway, he’s not so much as looked at a deck of cards.”
“I know,” Terrance agreed. “But I still can’t shake the feeling there is something going on with him. He wouldn’t be silly enough to throw everything he’s worked for away for a game of poker do you think? Not after all we went through with getting you back from the Conways and how that affected us all? I mean he’s smarter than that, right?”
She nodded. He was far smarter than Marcus Conway, who had thrown away a vast fortune and his freedom for a silly addiction to cards. He had also kidnapped Bethany and Terrance, and Benji had come to her rescue.
No, she didn’t think Benji would forget how Marcus had devolved into a monster who was willing to kidnap someone and pass them off as his sister only so she could marry into money to give it to him. She didn’t think any of them would ever forget that. It had shocked them all, Benji most of all. He had been keen to rethink his choices after seeing how Marcus, who had recently been released from jail, was struggling to make ends meet.
Terrance seemed reluctant to continue voicing his concerns. He bit into his second sandwich and chewed, looking thoughtful. Bethany knew better than to push the subject. He would speak about it when he was ready. In the meantime, she listened to the birdsong and enjoyed the sun on her face, warm, bright, and dappled as it filtered through the tree’s leaves.
She was just pouring a second mug of coffee for herself when Terrance broke the utter silence around them. Jumping, Bethany spilt coffee on her hands and let out a little squeak of surprise.
“Oh, sorry,” Terrance said pulling his handkerchief from his pocket. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s okay, you were just so quiet,” Bethany said.
He helped her mop up and then kissed her on the forehead. “I am sorry.”
“I know. It’s fine, really,” she said. “What’s on your mind?”
He put his sodden handkerchief back in his pocket, then rethought the action and took it out, stuffing it into the satchel. Bethany watched him, trying not to laugh. Terrance was so funny when he was worried sometimes.
“I just wanted to say that, regarding Benji, something is going on,” Terrance said as though it was an effort for him to admit this. “I’m not imagining it, I swear. He’s being evasive, and I would know because I’ve seen him act this way plenty times before. And it’s usually just before he goes and does something that turns his life upside down.” He looked ill as though the idea of something going on with his brother was more than he could stomach. “I can feel it. He’s hiding something.”
“Like what?” Bethany asked, unconcerned. Benji was a big boy and hopefully could look after himself now. “He’s settled down, he works in the business with you, and now he has Gracie.”
Terrance nodded and shrugged at the same time as though he wasn’t so sure about that.
Bethany didn’t understand. Had something happened?
To her knowledge, Benji had finally found love in the form of Gracie Hart. She had gone to school with Bethany and was the daughter of the local cobbler. Gracie worked in the shoe shop with her parents and made some of the finest ladies’ shoes around. In fact, the pair of boots Bethany was currently wearing had been made by Gracie’s clever hands.
“Has something happened with them?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Terrance said. “Like I said, he’s hiding something. Hasn’t been acting strangely with you?”
Bethany was about to ask more questions, suddenly worried, when the thud of feet on the earth filled her ears, and they both fell silent. Crouching down again behind the screen of bushes, Bethany and Terrance tried to be silent as they peered through the foliage.
A young man was coming around the side of the schoolhouse. He was tall, lean, but muscled, and had unruly black hair that stood up at angles. As though aware of their eyes on him, he tried to flatten the bit sticking up at the back with his hand, but with no luck. As his palm left it, the hair shot back up.
He was looking around, turning this way and that. Bethany thought she might know him. His face was familiar but only in that way that people were when one saw them around town. She didn’t think she’d ever spoken to him.
Judging the coast to be clear, the young man went to the steps. He was carrying a bag on his shoulder and from it he drew a blanket.
“What a gentleman,” Bethany whispered as he spread it out on the top step. Then he sat down and with his elbows on his thighs, fiddled with his fingers, tapping the tips together while his eyes roamed the greenery.
Once or twice, his gaze landed firmly on the spot where she and Terrance were hiding, and Bethany’s heart stopped. What if he saw them? Or if he spotted the tintype camera in the leaves? What would he do? But his eyes slid to the side and moved on, perhaps taking in the birds with their bright plumage in the trees around them.
The world was filled with nothing but the sound of the birds singing to one another and the wind soughing in the leaves. Then came another set of footfalls. This set was lighter than the first and Bethany peered through the leaves to see Missy approaching.
She wasn’t as careful as the young man had been. Stepping lightly, she had woven wildflowers in her honey golden hair and was smiling broadly as she and beau laid eyes on one another. Terrance tensed and motioned for Bethany to get into position.
Along with the camera, they had also brought the metal plates along that would enable Terrance to take more than one picture of them. He needed Bethany to get ready now, smearing the chemicals onto the surface of the metal so the picture could be fixed to it.
She had practiced this a lot, and it was easy for her now. She set to work, making sure to coat the metal, as Terrance had shown her.
The couple were sitting on the blanket and talking softly, their hands intertwined, their feet also. They giggled, and the young man, Bethany thought she heard Missy calling him Jeff, nuzzled her neck, making her squirm in delight.
He was rather free with his hands now, and Bethany, a married woman, thought she knew where this little encounter was headed.
Her mother had always told Bethany and her sister Lilly, that allowing a boy to have the milk before he’d bought the cow was wrong. And although it had taken her a good few years to work out exactly what that meant, she had been careful. Lilly had too and both were happily married with children, all of whom were begotten in wedlock as was good and proper. It seemed that Milly’s mother had forgotten to have that conversation with her daughter as things progressed far too quickly for Bethany’s taste.
For a while she looked down at the plates, passing new ones to Terrance, who was snapping picture after picture.
“Don’t you think we have enough now?” she asked.
“Yes, but we can’t leave,” he whispered back.
“Are you sure they’d notice?” Bethany asked as the noises coming from the steps became unmistakable in their meaning.
“Yes,” Terrance said and chuckled under his breath at her. “You’re still so prudish. It’s perfectly natural you know?”
“So is going to the outhouse, but you don’t see folks doing that in public,” she snapped back.
“This isn’t public,” Terrance said. “Anyway, it’ll be over soon.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“Oh please, no one can be that enthusiastic and be in for the long run,” he said.
He was right, thankfully. A moment or two later, things came to a loud end. Bethany had clamped her hands over her ears and closed her eyes, going so far as to turn her back on the scene on the steps. Terrance had stopped taking pictures a while ago, allowing her to have her moment of disgust.
It wasn’t the act that bothered her so, but the way the two had hardly spoken as though all they wanted from one another was that. It was sad.
Bethany couldn’t help comparing it to what she and Terrance had, and there was no comparison. She loved him, and he loved her. They talked, laughed, shared thoughts and feelings. If these two were thinking of having a proper relationship, then they were going about it all wrong in her opinion.
“Alright, we can pack up,” Terrance said.
Turning around, Bethany looked at the top step of the schoolhouse in surprise. There was no one there.
Her gaze slid to Terrance, who shrugged. “It happens,” he said. “People are strange.”
“Yes,” Bethany agreed.
They packed up in relative silence, careful to protect the metal plates until they could get them home. Bethany shuddered to think what was on them. She would let Terrance develop them and then speak to Mr. Hart about Milly’s complete lack of good judgement. If she went, things would go badly for them.
However, by the time they were walking down the street heading back to their little house on the hill, she was feeling much better. Having left the scene behind, Bethany could face the world once more. They had decided not to bring the buggy down with them as the horses would most likely have given them away. She was sad about that now as the bags seemed heavier than they had earlier. She couldn’t wait to get home and relax for a while.
However, as they turned into their front yard, she saw that relaxing wasn’t an option. Benji, was waiting on the porch for them.
“Morning,” he said. “How did it go?”
“It was vile,” Bethany said as Terrance walked up the steps and unlocked the door.
“That good huh?” Benji asked following them into their house. He took one of the bags from Bethany and went through to the kitchen with it. “I thought it might be. That note she left him was … well, if the words were any more explicit, the paper would have caught fire by itself. He knew exactly what he was going to get if he showed up.”
Bethany went to the pump in the scullery and began to fill the kettle. She’d have to have a bath later to wash off all the muck. If only she could wash her mind out as well. She’d feel far better then.
“Well, we got it on the plates,” Terrance said. “I’ll go develop them in a minute. You want some coffee?”
“Yes, thanks,” Benji said. “And I’d love to chat to you both, for a moment, if that’s okay?”
He sounded nervous. Bethany returned and put the kettle on the range. Then she lit the fire under it and set about getting them something to nibble. Benji, tall and thin, was nevertheless always hungry.
In the pantry, she found some cookies in the jar and a loaf of bread. Fig preserves would go well with it and so she grabbed that and a cake of goat’s cheese. Lilly was trying her hand at being a goat farmer, and so far, her soft cheeses were quite good.
Placing all this on the kitchen table she took her seat and waited. Benji and Terrance arrived with the trappings for the coffee and also sat down.
Benji was fidgeting, twiddling his fingers and biting his lower lip. And then as though the words had built up steam behind his teeth, he spat them out in one blisteringly fast sentence.
“What?” Terrance and Bethany asked both leaning forward as though to catch his words more easily.
“I’m going to ask Gracie to marry me,” he said.
“That’s wonderful,” Terrance said.
“About time,” Bethany said.
“We should have a little something to celebrate,” Terrance said. “Do we still have that orange liqueur the Trotters sent us?”
“I think so, I’ll go look,” Bethany said.
As she rose and went to the pantry, she found she had no appetite for that either. In fact, she was feeling really green about the gills as her father would say. She hadn’t felt like this since …
She hadn’t felt like this since she was pregnant with Jason. Two and two suddenly made four, and she felt weak. Leaning against the shelves, she sat on the stool she used to reach the top shelves and stared at the thoughts in her head, via her inner eyes.
In her mind, she could see the calendar. It took moments to count out the days, and there it was, she hadn’t bled in two months and simply hadn’t noticed.
“And there’s more …” she heard Benji say.
“What?” Terrance asked.
Bethany risked standing. Would Terrance be happy? He loved Jason, but they had never really discussed how many children they wanted.
“She’s pregnant,” Benji said.
Bethany’s hand closed on the orange liqueur, and she stepped out of the pantry. As she put the bottle down on the table, she knew there was no way she could even bear to smell the stuff.
“Congratulations,” she said to Benji. “I’m so happy for you, but I must go and lie down.”
She hurried upstairs.
About half an hour later, Terrance came up and slipped into the room. He lay down beside her.
“What’s going on? Aren’t you glad that Benji’s getting married?”
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “I told you there was nothing to worry about.”
“Actually, you didn’t,” he said and chuckled. Then his tone turned serious. “So, what’s going on?”
“Well, while I was in the pantry, I suddenly realized something.”
There was no good way to do this, so she blurted it out. “I’m pregnant again.”
Terrance’s face lit up in surprise. “You’re sure?”
“Pretty much,” she said.
He beamed. “I hope it’s a girl.”
Bethany stared at him in disbelief until she recalled that that was Terrance through and through and how she loved him for it.
“You’re happy?” she asked.
He nodded and wrapped his arms around her holding her tight to him. “Blissfully.”
And as they lay there, staring at the ceiling and imagining what the future would hold, there was one thing Bethany was certain of. No matter what happened, which trials and hardships came their way, they would face them together, as husband and wife but also as best friends. And that would never change.