A sigh fell from my lips and I closed my eyes, taking Daniel by the hand and dragging him out of the room and up the stairs to make sure he changed into a better shirt. For now, he was safe from my lectures, but the conversation was not over yet. There was far too much I didn’t like about the situation, my mind felt like oatmeal from the prospect of two men being in an intimate relationship, so I was grateful for this rather pleasant and welcome distraction.
Temperance Taylor was a childhood friend, her family had been in business with mine for over three decades. She was the only daughter born of the Taylor’s, and for the duration of our time knowing each other, we’d both been aware of our arranged marriage.
It was strictly for business, I understood that and was fully prepared for it, but I was not prepared for the carriage to stop. Daniel was standing beside me pulling at the tight collar of his shirt, and I was holding back the need to grab at his hands to make him stop, my back straightening out as the door of the carriage was pulled open, and Mr. Tanner stepped down with his wife just behind him.
My father went to greet them, and my eyes inevitably snapped to the side when I noticed Josiah step forward with another slave to take the bags and trunks from the back of the carriage. I glanced down at Daniel to see he was watching the slave with heavy eyes, and again had to control myself from kicking him or hitting the back of his head, instead opting to whisper harshly.
“Pay attention, these are important guests, don’t get me in trouble.”
He sighed, rolling his eyes and reaching up to scratch his head, messing up his hair. I turned to scold him for tangling it after I’d spent so long trying to comb it back neatly, but snapped my attention forward when Mr. Taylor held his hand out for me.
“It’s been a long time, Henry. I see you’ve grown into a fine man.”
“Yes, sir,” I took his hand firmly in my own and shook it, offering him my best smile, “You’re looking well yourself Mr. Tanner,” I took his wife’s hand when she reached us and bent my head to kiss the back of it, “and you are as beautiful as ever, ma’am.”
She laughed at me before the two of them turned to Daniel, and I barely sensed his discomfort before my attention fell back on the carriage, my smile falling as Temperance stepped down the steps, taking my father’s hand for help and thanking him with a smile that could have stopped wars.
The little Temperance I used to know had grown into a flower of exquisite beauty. Her hair was in dark ringlets that framed her face, the back pinned up, and her eyes were pools of molasses, her skin porcelain with an undertone of rose that took its home along the curve of her cheeks and the bride of her nose. The dark purple dress she wore complimented each of her assets, and she held a fan up to hide behind as those enamoring eyes met me. The fan closed to show a smile painted with red, and I was suddenly lightheaded.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it Hen?”
I choked a little on my breath and cleared my throat, smiling crookedly as she came up to me, “Aren’t we both a little too old for nicknames, milady?” I asked, taking her hand, and she laughed, a sound like bluebells, as I lifted her hand to my lips, lingering against the silk of her glove as she reopened her fan to hide an obvious blush.
She turned quickly when I’d released her hand and lowered the fan from her face to smile at Daniel, “And if it isn’t little Danny!” she stepped over to him and grabbed his hands, causing a sudden unexpected pang of jealousy to hit my chest like a dart, “You used to be so little, but you’ve grown quite handsome, haven’t you?”
Daniel laughed uneasily, reaching up to mess his hair up even more, “You’ve also gotten very pretty, Miss Temperance. It’s good to see you again.”
I was so distracted watching them I didn’t realize a fourth person had stepped out of the carriage until my father snapped his fingers in front of my face, prompting me to turn and greet the woman who had approached me. She was unfamiliar to me, but her hair was about as dark as Temperance’s, although it seemed lackluster.
In fact, this woman, compared to Temperance, was completely lackluster. Her hair was pin straight and heavy, her eyes were the color of swampy water, and her lips sagged even when she smiled. I suppose she was still pretty, but my head had already been turned. I was polite, took her hand and brought it to my lips for a quick kiss, and Mr. Taylor came up behind her.
“May I introduce my niece, Agatha Flores,” he held his arm out towards me, effectively separating me from Temperance and my brother and prompting me to lift my hand so Agatha could take it, like we were shaking hands, “Agatha was born and raised in London, you see, and her parents recently passed, so she’s come to us for stability.”
“On your sister’s side of the family?” my father asked, and Mr. Taylor nodded.
“Quite. She’s lovely, isn’t she?”
“Yes, sir,” I agreed politely, and Agatha smiled brightly.
I looked over to Temperance, who was standing to the side with her hands folded and holding onto her closed fan, her head bowed in some form of forced acceptance. Something wasn’t right.
“Well! Let’s not waste time, we’ve prepared a lovely dinner to discuss the marriage over,” my father said, and I smiled at Temperance, who refused to meet my eye as my father clapped his hands, “Boy! Take those bags to the guest bedrooms!”
Josiah bowed his head, I noticed Daniel bristling, so I reached out behind him and pinched his arm. There was no way I would let him ruin this for me.