Catherine Harridge stood on the cliff's summit, watching the sun sink below the horizon. Where was Bramwell? They had arranged to meet on the hour, and it was nearly half past now. She began thinking about their first meeting five years ago.
It had been Sunday, and she had-as usual-been hurrying to join her parents and younger sister in church. Some of the lace of her new lavender dress had been loose, and Catherine had stayed behind to repair it, making her late. She was running along the road when a black horse had appeared out of nowhere, its rider pulling up short upon seeing here on the road's edge. His deep-set hazel eyes looked a bit dazzled, but Catherine was intent upon joining her family. "Good morning," he had said, his voice soft.
"Sir," she acknowledged, not looking up at him.
"You are very beautiful." She had heard it before. He had been around almost every day, trying to gain her attention. But she refused to give it. Catherine didn't intend to change that today.
His voice held a hint of awe, and Catherine's eyes narrowed as they looked up at last. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said you are beautiful," he repeated. "What is your name?"
"We have not been introduced, sir-"
He smiled. "There is no need. I know everyone in the village. You must are the new doctor's daughter."
Catherine's lips thinned at his insistence on detaining her. Perhaps if she told him her name, he would allow her to pass. "My name is Catherine Harridge, sir. If you will excuse me, I am late for church."
"The services have already begun," her tormentor pointed out.
"My family is expecting me," she said, exasperated. He moved the huge animal to block her path. "I am late!" she repeated angrily.
""Surely you cannot prefer to enter a crowded church during a boring sermon when you could be with me."
"Excuse me-" she said, making to go around the horse, only to be stopped when the brash young rider leapt down directly into her path.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked, his eyes watching her closely.
"You're Bramwell Collins," she said simply, her blue eyes flashing.
"And that name doesn't impress you?"
"No, it does not. Now," she said lifting her skirt, "if you will please allow me to continue-"
"I couldn't possibly let you out of my sight," he told her, smiling.
Catherine's eyes opened wide. "Sir?"
"Such a beautiful vision would surely vanish forever if I did."
Taking a deep breath, Catherine tried count silently to to ten. "You are very forward, Mr. Collins, and brash, and stubborn," she accused, trying to hide her smile in temper.
Her eyes could not accomplish that feat, and Bramwell knew he had won. He extended a hand to her, was pleased when she placed hers within it. "We'll walk back this way."
She glanced up at the animal he was leading. "That is a magnificent horse."
"Thank you. But he's not mine," Bramwell confessed. "I borrowed him from my cousin's stable."
"Your cousin Justin Collins?" Catherine questioned.
"Yes. He and his family live at Collinwood." His light tone had darkened.
"No. My mother and I live at the Old House on the estate."
She nodded. "I've seen it when I've walked up the cliff path," she told him.
As they had walked that day, Catherine had begun to understand the complexity of Bramwell's nature. He adored his mother, hated his cousin Justin's three sons-especially Morgan, who was the same age as he. Justin had promised to give Bramwell a place at the Collins' Shipyards in another year or so. He hated being the "poor relation", as he put it, and swore that one day he would be wealthier than any of his cousins. Even listening to him, and from what little she had heard since her family's moving to Collinsport, she still wasn't sure how the schism had developed within the Collins family. It troubled her to some degree that Bramwell held his cousins responsible somehow even for the death of his father Barnabas several years before.
When at last they had approached the church, it was deserted and the evening sun was beginning to sink below the horizon. Bramwell stood at her side, their hands still entwined.
"This has been the most wonderful day of my life," Bramwell told her, his tone hushed. "Did you enjoy it, Catherine?"
"Yes," she admitted, her eyes shining. They stood in silence, looking up at the steeple, and Catherine knew in her heart that when she walked down the aisle of the church in her wedding dress, Bramwell would be waiting there for her. "This is impossible," she said.
"No," Bramwell told her, "it isn't." His words revealed that his thoughts had been following the same lines.. "We were meant to be together, Catherine."
"But-we only met this morning. People don't-"
"Fall in love so quickly?" Bramwell finished. "My parents did. Father took one look at Mother and knew that he would never love anyone else. That's how I felt when I saw you on that road this morning. I knew, Catherine. And so did you. Admit it."
Her eyes met his and she knew there was no denying it. "Yes. I knew."
He touched her cheek with a rough finger. "Come. I'll walk you home."
Dr. Harridge and his wife hadn't been too pleased about the relationship that had begun that spring day, but as the next four years passed, they were forced to admit that their eldest daughter was very much in love with young Bramwell Collins. They younger Harridge daughter, Daphne, developed a powerful school-girl fondness on her sister's beau. It amused the couple for her to tag along, and she served as an acceptable chaperone in her parents' eyes. Over those years, Catherine had come to understand Bramwell's anger at his relatives. Before Justin had been able to give Bramwell his rightful place in the family's business, the Collins patriarch has suffered a debilitating accident which had left Morgan firmly in charge of the shipyards. The rivalry between Morgan and Bramwell had stopped just short of open violence, but everyone knew that the two men hated each other. Catherine had hoped that Bramwell would put things behind him, ask her to marry him. But her mother's death a year ago had created a need for her to take care of her own father and sister, and Bramwell had agreed that they put their needs aside temporarily. In the year since then, Catherine saw all the signs that something was about to happen. When Bramwell had sent her the urgent message for them to meet, she had felt suddenly cold, and terribly, terribly frightened.
She wrapped her arms around her waist,
drawing her shawl more tightly as the cool evening air deepened.
Where was he? she wondered again.
She turned quickly into his arms, relieved that he was safe. "Bramwell." She lifted her lips to his, reveling in the way his kisses made her feel. "You're late," she admonished gently as he drew a little way from her.
"Forgive me. Mother and I had a-disagreement."
"About what?" she asked, frowning. Bramwell and his mother almost never argued.
"My plans," Bramwell said briefly.
"Let's go to the Old House," he suggested. "Mother just left a few minutes ago for the village to visit a friend. We have to talk." Frowning, Catherine led the way toward the Old House.
She went into the parlour while he closed
the door behind them. When he entered, she turned to look
at him. "Bramwell, what's wrong?"
"I've decided to leave Collinsport, Catherine," he informed her, his green eyes more serious than she'd ever seen them.
"Leave? But-where will you go?"
"Boston, New York. Perhaps farther."
She blinked back her tears. "Why?" She didn't really need to hear his answer when it came. She'd heard it for five years.
"As long as I remain here, Morgan and his brothers are determined to keep me in what they consider my place. When I returned to Collinwood, I'll be as rich as any of them, and they will never be able to tell me what to do again."
Watching his set features, Catherine knew that no amount of begging would change Bramwell's mind. Once he made a decision, there would be no going back. So she asked, "When are you leaving?" Her gaze had fallen to the threadbare rug beneath her feet.
Bramwell's finger lifted her chin. "That depends on you, my darling Catherine."
"On me? How?"
"Marry me and come with me. I need you, Catherine. By my side."
His eyes hardened. "But?" he repeated. "Why are you hesitating?"
"This is all so-sudden."
"You love me." It was a statement of fact, and Catherine couldn't deny it.
"Of course I do, but-"
"Again? Catherine, either you want to marry me or you don't."
"It's not that simple, Bramwell," she insisted, her blue eyes flashing with anger as he turned away. "Oh, you are the most impossible man!" she exclaimed.
He turned back to her, taking her hands. "I love you, Catherine," he said simply.
"And I love you. Oh, Bramwell, I want to marry you, but-I don't want it to be like this."
He dropped her hands. "Next you'll suggest I go and make my fortune and you'll wait for me here."
"NO! When I leave, you will go with me."
Catherine wrapped her arms around her waist, watching him. "This is what you and your mother argued about, isn't it?"
"Yes," he admitted slowly. "She refuses to leave Collinwood, says there is an important reason why she must stay. And she thinks you should stay here as well."
"She's right, Bramwell," Catherine told him, placing her hand on his arm, feeling how tense he was. "As much as I would wish otherwise, I have to think about Daphne and Father. He isn't well. You know that. And Daphne is still so young-"
"Of course," Bramwell said, his head bowed. Suddenly he straightened, squaring his shoulders as if to take on the entire world. "Then I shall go alone." He turned to take her into his arms. "Will you wait for me?"
She smiled, slightly surprised that he would have to ask such a question. "You know I will. How long will you be gone?"
He shook his head. "I have no idea. There are some friends of Father's in New York who once offered me a position. I hope it won't take very long. Every moment I'm away from you will be torture."
Catherine sighed deeply. "I know, my darling. For me as well. I shall count the hours until we are together again." She lifted her lips eagerly for his kiss.
Bramwell departed the next morning, his
mother and Catherine waving him off. Both women stood watching
until the ship's sails were lost in the distance, neither speaking.
"He's gone," Josette said in a small, sad voice.
Catherine placed an arm around the woman. "He'll be back, Mrs. Collins. He promised, remember? Will you come back to the house for tea?"
"No, thank you, dear. I must become accustomed to the house being so empty. Give my best to your father and sister."
"I shall. Do come soon for a visit."
"And you must visit me."
Dr. Harridge died in his sleep two months later. Luckily, he had saved sufficient money that his daughters could live without worrying about where their next meal would come from. Catherine, to supplement the small annuity, took in occasional sewing. Sixteen year old Daphne continued to concentrate on her studies, which Catherine insisted upon.
It was the sewing which resulted in Catherine's coming into contact with Bramwell's nemesis, Morgan Collins. A servant usually delivered the items from Flora Collins to be repaired, and Catherine had fully expected another servant to pick them up. But instead the woman's eldest son had stood on the doorstep.
Catherine had seen him, of course. It would have been impossible not to in such a small village, considering who he was. He was more handsome than Bramwell, about the same height, and Catherine knew they were the same age. But there was something hard about his eyes, she felt, something that left her cold. "I've come for my mother's things, if they're ready," he had said, looking her up and down as if he had every right to do so.
"They are," she had told him, stepping back. "I only completed the last of it this morning."
He watched her in silence as she carefully folded the items back into the basket. "So. You are Bramwell's Catherine. Tell me-have you heard from my errant cousin? I know his mother hasn't had any word."
She hid her anger at his judgmental tone of voice. "I am sure that Bramwell is too busy to write."
"Too busy finding someone else to blame his troubles on, more likely," was Morgan's comment. His sneer twisted his handsome features into someone grotesque. "Poor Bramwell."
Catherine's eyes flashed with blue fire as she told him, "Excuse me, sir, but I do not wish to hear about or discuss your differences with Bramwell." She held out the basket. "Here are your mother's things."
He took the basket, smiling crookedly now. "Loyal to Bramwell, eh? To bad he doesn't deserve that loyalty. He won't be back, you know. Ever."
Catherine noticed Daphne standing in the kitchen doorway, here expression mutinous, so she opened the front door. "That is your opinion, sir, not mine. Good day."
He tipped his hat. "Good day, Miss Harridge," he said, leaving the house.
Catherine closed the door and sighed as Daphne flounced into the room. "How dare he!" the girl exploded. "Bramwell will be back. I know he will. He promised."
"Yes," Catherine agreed. "You know that Morgan and Bramwell don't like each other very much."
"They hate each other," Daphne clarified. She shook her head at Catherine. "You should have gone with him, Catherine. I would have."
Morgan began spending a good deal of time at the Harridge cottage under the guise of delivering or picking up his mother's sewing order. He no longer mentioned his cousin's name, but seemed to go out of his way to show Catherine how charming he could be. He asked Catherine several times to go for a walk with him, but she always refused, much to Daphne's relief. The girl's faith in Bramwell never faltered, even after the fourth anniversary of his departure came and went.
One summer evening, as Catherine was
putting the final touches on a dress for her sister, Morgan knocked
at the door. There was no basket in his hands-nor did Catherine
have anything for him to pick up. She frowned. "Morgan.
Is something wrong?"
He smiled almost shyly. "No. I just decided to call in, perhaps to convince you to take a walk with me." He saw her start to speak, and lifted his hand. "Now, before you refuse, think about it. What could possibly be wrong about a short walk in the evening air?"
Catherine shook her head. "I'm sorry, Morgan, but I don't think it would be wise-"
He slammed his fist into his hand. "Damnation! How long are you going to sit here pining for that no good, worthless cousin of mine? He's never going to return, Catherine, face it."
She stood, shaking in anger. "I think you had better go now, Morgan,-" she moved toward the door, but Morgan grabbed her hand, holding it tightly. "Morgan, let me go."
"Not until you listen." His voice was soft, yet it demanded her attention. Her blue eyes met his, hoping he could read how furious she was. "I've been coming here for two years now, and I simply won't allow you to waste your life any longer. You're a very beautiful woman, Catherine, and you deserve so much more than to be doing sewing for other people. All I want is for you to give me a chance, Catherine. That you don't shut me out."
Catherine looked away. Only late at night, alone in her bed, had she ever allowed herself to admit to her loneliness and despair. In four years, she had only had one letter from Bramwell, and that had offered no clue as to the date of his return. Morgan was right. She couldn't wait forever. She had her future-and Daphne's to consider.
Morgan's eyes searched her face. "Catherine?"
She drew a deep breath before she spoke. "You may call on me, Morgan," she told him. "And not just to bring sewing from your mother."
He smiled, but Catherine didn't see the look of triumph on his face, since she was looking down. at the floor. "You won't regret it, Catherine," he promised, lifting her hand to his lips. "Now. About that walk?"
Daphne said very little aloud concerning Morgan's courtship of her sister, but she sulked and pouted, leaving Catherine little doubt of her disapproval. Daphne considered the way her sister seemed to enjoy their dinners at Collinwood with Bramwell's enemies to be disloyal. He would be furious when he discovered Catherine's duplicity upon his return. It had been almost five years, Daphne thought with a sigh. Surely he wouldn't say away much longer.
For her part, Catherine found herself growing more and more confused by her growing relationship with Morgan Collins. With Bramwell life had been tempestuous, all hills and valleys. They had argued and reconciled daily it seemed in retrospect. But and Morgan almost never argued or disagreed, and Catherine knew that he was going to ask her to marry him. It was five years since had wished Bramwell farewell. How much longer did he expect her to wait? Until she was an old, bitter woman with nothing left but memories? When Morgan asked, Catherine fully intended to consider his proposal. No matter what the consequences . . .