a free and complete Short Story
by Donna Hatch
Bells heralded a ship’s arrival. HMS Artemis. The name traveled through town like a wave.
Lily froze. Her breath froze. Her heart froze.
His ship. Should she go?
He’d been gone so long and hadn’t replied to her letters in months. Perhaps he’d forgotten her. After all, what were a few dances, some long walks…a kiss?
Shading her eyes, Lily watched the frigate glide into port.
“Are you going?” Aunt Ruthie asked from the inn’s doorway.
Lily gripped her basket and turned away from temptation. “He knows where I am. He’ll come to me if that is still his desire.”
Brushing past her aunt, Lily stepped inside the inn. As she set her basket of vegetables on the kitchen table, she caught sight of her hands, work-worn now, with broken nails and calluses. Further down, evidence of her reduced fortune revealed itself in her faded gown.
Aunt Ruthie dug through the basket. “He’ll see you faster if you’re at the dock to meet him.”
“He might not wish to see me. Not like this.” Lily tied on an apron. “Not at all.”
“Then you’ll know right off, and not have to wonder and wait.”
Lily took a breath, then another. Her deepest fear wrenched out of her. “What if he rejects me? Or worse, marries me out of duty?”
“If he rejects you, you’re no worse off than you are now. If he feels duty-bound, at least you’d have a home and a husband.”
A home with an unwilling husband who married her out of obligation…or pity? No, she preferred rejection.
Aunt Ruthie added, “Better than living and working here.”
Lily offered a fond smile. “My dearest Aunt, you know I don’t mind earning my keep. Besides, I’ll have possession of my dowry when I turn twenty-five, and won’t need to marry. I can buy you that new stove and—”
“You can buy a cottage with servants and live as the lady you were born to be.” Aunt Ruthie removed the vegetables from Lily’s basket. “These look better than last market day’s.” She handed them to the scullery maid who began peeling.
Lily breathed a sigh of relief at the change in topic and threw herself into meal preparation. The arrival of a ship meant hungry customers would soon flood the inn.
Would he come?
Closing her eyes, she drew a breath. Wait and see.
Her gaze strayed out the window to the frigate. Perhaps he had written and his last several letters had not reached her; wartime mail was unreliable.
More likely, his heart had changed. A gentleman such as he had his pick of fine ladies.
The Artemis’ sails collapsed as if hope drained out of them, leaving them empty, without purpose. Grinding her teeth, Lily pounded bread dough on the floured board. She refused to run to the dock and throw herself at him like a lovesick waif and put him into the position of having to fulfill his duties as a gentleman, or confess he’d found someone new. Besides, a lady never approached a gentleman; she waited for him to come to her. Not that this was a ballroom. She hadn’t worn a ball gown or dancing slippers in the two years since her world crumbled with her father’s sudden death.
By the time the first loaves of bread came out of the oven, enfolding the inn with a welcoming aroma, two sailors carrying sea bags entered. But neither wore the uniform of an officer.
Lily swallowed disappointment.
“Don’t let pride get in your way of happiness,” Aunt Ruthie urged. “Go to him.”
Lily gestured at the dining area. “I can’t leave you now. You already have customers.”
“We’ll manage. People come for my cooking; they’ll wait to be served. Go.”
Go? Did she dare?
She pictured him completing his duties as an officer and disembarking. Would he look for her?
Be relived she wasn’t there with reminders he considered best forgotten?
Or disappointed she hadn’t welcomed him home?
She imagined him on the dock—alone—while around him fellow sailors ran to the arms of their wives or sweethearts. No returning war hero should come home without a welcome. Risking humiliation would be a small price to pay to prevent such tragedy.
After practically tearing off her apron, she washed flour from her hands and face, and dashed to the dock. A crowd waited as sailors disembarked, some into open arms. Calls, tears, and laughter filled the air, mingling with cries of gulls and clanging of bells. Grim-faced men strode with the rolling gaits of seamen down the dock alone.
As the stream of arrivals slowed, the crowd thinned. Disappointment tasted bitter on her tongue.
A solitary form appeared. The uniform of an officer graced his lean frame. He turned his head slowly as if searching. Sunlight shimmered on his dark hair, illuminating russet highlights in his closely cropped waves.
Was that him? Lily took a step nearer, shading her eyes. The Lily of seven years ago was a gentleman’s daughter who wore a stylish white muslin afternoon gown and waited in a parlor. The Lily of today was an innkeeper’s impoverished niece who wore an outdated, faded frock and waited at a dock.
Lily’s courage faltered. She could slip away. Before he noticed her. Rejected her. Pitied her.
As the officer turned his head, sunlight shone on his face. His face. Alternating hot and cold tingles raced over Lily’s skin.
His face had grown more angular, his shoulders more broad. A scar bisected his chin, and another crossed his jaw but his handsome face that had captured her attention long ago, belonged to him.
Home at last!
He turned his head again, and his gaze traveled over her. It passed on without recognition.
Like a sail without wind, her heart deflated. He didn’t know her. Didn’t want to know her.
Overhead, a gull cried. A baby cried. Her heart cried. He checked himself, his gaze returning. Fixed on her. Stared. Hard.
Her legs quivered.
As his eyes narrowed, he moistened lips that had touched hers so long ago, sealing a promise. The color drained from his face. “Lily?”
Clasping together trembling hands, she offered a tremulous smile. “Welcome home.”
“Am I home?” He stood, tense and wary.
“You…” her breath left her. “You aren’t happy to see me.”
Oh, why had she come? She should have remained at the inn, allowing him to slip away without an awkward confrontation.
He took a halting step forward. “You are even more beautiful than ever.” The knot of his cravat shifted as he swallowed.
She knew it! He was searching for a way to let her down.
Courage. Decorum. She squared her shoulders. “It appears my coming here was a lapse in judgement. Forgive me if I have made you uncomfortable. Clearly your regard for me has changed. After all, it was long ago.” She focused on the ship’s rigging and tried to keep her tears in check, but mast, sky, and clouds all collapsed into a blurred water color.
“Lily.” He uttered her name like a prayer. “My love for you has changed—it has grown. But when your letters stopped, I thought…perhaps it was best, considering…”
His love had grown? Her eyesight cleared, revealing his agonized expression.
Lily held out a hand. “I wrote often. But you didn’t…” Wait. Her letters stopped? “It appears we’ve both sent letters the other never received.”
Understanding dawned in his eyes. “Another casualty of war.” He limped toward her. One arm raised, the other dangling lifelessly at his side. “I…am not the same man who danced with you.”
In a rush of clarity, it came to her. His scars, limp, unused arm—the reason for his hesitance. She whispered, “You were injured.”
His mouth worked again before he raised a tortured, shattered gaze. “I don’t walk well, and my left arm is almost useless. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want me now.” He stood, forlorn as a lost child.
With a cry, Lily launched herself at him. He caught her and wrapped her tightly with one arm. Doubt, sorrow, and loneliness faded as hope and joy took root and bloomed.
She kissed the scars on his face. “Of course I want you. I love you. If you’ll take me, an innkeeper’s niece, I’ll gladly take you, a wounded war hero.”
As he buried his face into her hair, his shoulders shook. “I feared you wouldn’t…” With a strangled groan, he pulled away enough to look at her. Smiling, he kissed her calloused fingers, cupped her cheek, and kissed her lips, slow and heart-melting. He held her as if she healed him from all the horrors of war. “Marry me, my love?”
She didn’t know whether to laugh or weep. “Yes!”
Ship bells rang like wedding bells.
“Welcome home,” she whispered between kisses.
He pulled her closer. “I am home.”