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Light of my Life (English version)

Carol/Therese AU Fanfiction


Disclaimer:
This is a Carol/Therese AU fanfiction, based on the movie “Carol” by Todd Haynes and the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. All rights belong to the publisher “Diogenes” and the film production companies Number 9 Films, Killer Films and Film4 Productions. Thanks a million to my English beta readers HeySlopoke and Ligeria.

Summary:
In 1640, two years before the English Civil War breaks out, life in England is characterized by political unrest. Charles I has been reigning without a parliament for more than 10 years, much to the dismay of England’s people. However, after several riots in Scotland, he needs money and hopes to get it by reinstating a parliament. Its members, on the other hand, intend to force him to make concessions, especially tax cuts. One of these politicians is Harold Aird, Earl of Essex, who is quite critical of the King’s political decisions. In order to discuss England’s future, he invites all soon-to-be members of the House of Lords to his house, and he engages the well-known painter Theodore Belivet to make a portrait of his wife Carolyn for the special event.




Chapter 1



London, February 16, 1640


The sky was overcast by grey when a slender figure jumped off the carriage in front of the gates of the Essex House. Its black coat and dark trousers with black boots hardly stood out against the sky’s consistent grey, but it was in distinct contrast to the bright walls of the huge estate. For the first time in two weeks, the temperature had risen above the freezing point and the air was filled by the smell of grass and damp leaves. There was still snow on the houses’ roofs and Therese Belivet cautiously stepped aside when the condensation water on the window sills dropped on her hat from above.

With a sigh, she took the hat off her head and wiped the moisture from the black leather before her dark hair disappeared under the headgear again. The Earl of Essex was known for his strict etiquette and Therese didn’t want to meet him in wet clothes by any means.

The building’s immense size reminded Therese more of a castle or of a palace and she nervously pressed the oil painting under her arm more firmly against her chest, when a servant met her at the entrance. The young man guided her through a maze of double doors, so that Therese hopelessly lost her orientation after just a short time. It was rumored in London that the Earl’s estate had more than 42 rooms and the chambers were furnished utterly tastefully and expensively. Undoubtedly, the house’s gem was the magnificent picture gallery, where the servant led Therese eventually.

“The Earl is still busy, Mr. Belivet,” the servant explained and left Therese after a bow. As soon as the door had closed behind her, Therese curiously stepped closer to the paintings that hung on all four walls. Everybody who was anybody in Europe, whether dead or alive, was gathered in this hall. In most cases, Therese could recognize the painting’s creator by his craft without needing to look at the signature.

She was surprised by how much passion for detail the owner had put into the gallery. The pictures partly hung above and under each other, and the dark oak furniture in the room was arranged in a way that they stressed the pictures’ character even more. Maybe Therese had done the Earl an injustice when she had accepted his request only reluctantly.

Doubtlessly, Harold Aird had a reputation of being an arrogant strategist who wasn’t interested in much else than politics, but over the years, Therese had learned to rather see people for herself, before she would judge them. Quite a few feared rulers turned out to be innocent lambs during the portrait sessions, while other valued statesmen ruled like a tyrant in their own home.

Therese span around when the door behind her opened and the servant entered again. “The Earl is ready now, Sir,” he said curtly, gesturing her to follow him. Her oil painting in one hand, her hat in the other, she followed the man again through several doors, until he stopped in a room full of books and with a big desk in the middle. “The Earl asks you to wait for him here,” the servant informed her and lingered next to the door, keeping his eyes glued to her.

Judging by his face, she had to adapt herself to a long wait and Therese carefully leant the oil painting, wrapped in a linen cloth, against the desk. While she was nervously waiting for Harold Aird’s appearance, she felt the exhaustion in her bones. She hadn’t gotten much sleep in the last few nights – the concern about her sick sister Beth had been too serious and the order of the Earl of Essex too important.

The huge desk implied that this had to be the Earl’s workroom. Hundreds of papers piled on the desk, which apparently still had to be read or signed. They even continued onto the cushioned chairs. The voluminous book shelves, however, seemed to be organized with the utmost attention to detail. Even though he had built up a reputation of an arrogant Lord, Harold Aird seemed to be a man who not only enjoyed aristocratic origin but also worked really hard.

Somewhere in the house somebody played the harpsichord; a beautiful, sad melody that immediately captured Therese’s heart. Very quietly, she listened to the sounds and decided that this house couldn’t be soulless.

The melancholic melody reminded Therese of warm summer nights, when she had sat at the fire with her sisters, dreaming of a better life. Suddenly the playing stopped and shortly afterwards, Therese heard voices behind the double door. Then the door opened and a tall man in a jerkin with golden-blue stripes walked in. His dark hair was cut relatively short and ended at his white collar. “Ah, the ordered visitor,” he said, as if he remembered just now that he had invited a portrait painter to his house. “Theodore Belivet, if I am not mistaken?” He waved her towards him. “Please, come closer.“

“My lord.” Therese made a deep bow, before she stepped next to the desk. “I hope it’s not inconvenient?”

“No, no.” The Earl shook his head distractedly. “It’s about time that this matter can finally be closed.” He moved his head towards the servant. “I need the pictures, Oliver.”

He hadn’t even finished his sentence when the servant had already disappeared into the adjacent room. He reappeared with several paintings shortly afterwards.

“I’ve imagined you taller, Mr. Belivet,” the Earl stated with a slight touch of mockery. “And older, too.” He took the paintings from the servant and spread them on his desk. “Anyway, you’ve already earned yourself a reputation.” He took a cloth and wiped some dust grains from the paintings. “I understand you’ve learned your craft in the Netherlands?”

“Yes, from Pieter van Goyen,” Therese answered briefly. She had always felt uncomfortable talking about herself, but she couldn’t fully avoid it if she wanted to get a commission.

“That’s exactly why I called for you.” The Earl nodded contentedly. “Nobody knows as much about light as the Dutch people do.” With a brief gesture, he ordered her to step next to him. “Look at this, Mr. Belivet.” He pointed at the portraits. “I have called for the best painters of England to portray my spouse, and none of them was able to capture her.” He snorted scornfully. “These don’t even deserve to be called a portrait.”

Therese bent over the pictures and saw a slim, blond woman, maybe in her mid-thirties, with radiant blue eyes, which looked a little bored towards the viewer. She wore a cream-colored dress with a white lace collar and seemed to be extraordinarily beautiful. At a closer look, she reminded Therese of the younger Queen Elizabeth. As far as Therese could see, the portraits were crafted perfectly and she couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, see what the Earl disliked so much. Maybe the absence of spirit? Or maybe the somehow inanimate creation of the shadows?

“As it seems, our country doesn’t have much to offer in the field of art.” The Earl sighed with a mixture of irritation and resignation. “That’s why I have called for you, Mr. Belivet.”

Therese swallowed nervously. She was very aware that she wouldn’t receive a single coin if the Earl wasn’t pleased with her work. “I’ll try my very best, my lord,” she said politely. “However, it would help if you told me what kind of portrait you prefer and what would be important to you.”

The Earl laughed, as if no explanation was needed. “Capture her beauty,” he said curtly. “Then I’ll be satisfied.”

“It’s never easy to capture true beauty, my lord,” Therese responded with a smile. “It comes from within as much as from the outside.”

“Fair enough, but I expect of a painter that he‘s capable of visualizing both.” The Earl instructed the servant Oliver to remove the paintings again. “Is this one a picture you created?” He pointed with his head at the painting that she had leant against the desk.

“Yes, my lord. It’s not a portrait, though.” Therese freed the painting from its linen cloth and gave it to the Earl.

Harold Aird looked at the painting with a frown. “A bowl with some fruits? And a fly on a peach? What’s that supposed to be?”

“It’s called a still life, my lord. Paintings like these are quite modern in the Netherlands right now. This one symbolizes the lights and darks of life.”

Therese held her breath when the Earl took a closer look at her painting. If he changed his mind, she wouldn’t be able to pay for the medicine for her sister Beth. “You are our last hope,” her mother had said to her when she had sent for Therese. “As much as we want to, we’re not able to procure the money for the medicine.”

Beth hadn’t even been a year old when Therese had emigrated to the Netherlands. It had been a hard time for Therese when she had to say farewell to her parents and her sisters. But her parents were too poor to feed five children. The father’s weaving mill made less and less profit, and on Therese’s 15th birthday her parents told her that her father had gotten a job for her in Utrecht.

“Nobody loves painting as much as you do,“ Mr. Belivet had said to his daughter. “A colleague of mine provides the court in Utrecht with silk. They have a well-known court painter there and you will have the honor to assist him.”

“Finally you can surround yourself with pictures,” her mother had added, as if her words could hide the tears in her eyes. “You will learn to blend colors, Therese, and to create undercoats and you can look over the artist’s shoulder every day.”

“Bbbut …” Therese had stuttered. “How would that be possible?”

“It’s possible because …“ Her father guessed her thoughts immediately. “Because I told my colleague that I have son who would be very talented in the field of painting.” He didn’t dare looking at Therese and awkwardly stared at his shoes instead. “I’m sorry, Therese. It’s the only job we could find for you. Please, don’t worry. You will be well supplied at court.”

Two weeks later, Therese had emigrated to the Netherlands, where she worked for four years for the painter Pieter van Goyen at the court of Utrecht. The court painter quickly recognized the talent of his young assistant and supported him as much as possible. After only three years, Therese was allowed to paint commissioned portraits on her own and she eventually left the court, hoping that she would earn enough money for a living. Thanks to the good contacts of Pieter van Goyen, she got commissions in Spain, France, Prussia, and England and it didn’t take her long to earn enough coins to live on. In addition, she was able to send small sums of money to her family.

Although she had never stopped missing her home, Therese had started to like her new life. Her work entailed a lot of traveling and so she got to know lots of different places and cultures. Curious by nature, she literally sponged up the originalities of other cultures and always enjoyed new experiences. As a man, she didn’t need to fear assaults and annoyances, which made the traveling a lot less troublesome.

It was amazing to see how much a person’s clothes could mislead people. In all these years, not a single person had ever doubted her identity. A few cords around the chest, a deliberately deeper voice, and the clothes of an honorable man seemed to be enough to convince the world of Theodore Belivet’s authenticity.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t an easy life. She never could be who she really was and she always had to deceive people. She traveled from place to place, never came to rest, was nowhere at home, and sometimes she felt as if she was always in search of something without knowing what it was. Painting always comforted her and took her mind off the things she would never have in life. And first and foremost, it gave Therese the opportunity to support her family with money.

Only the sudden death of her father four years ago had Therese led to Sudbury again. All of a sudden her mother had to take over her husband’s weaving mill, but the guild threatened to take it away from her if she didn’t complete the necessary education. So Therese’s mother had to catch up on her education while at the same time she was working night and day as a weaver to earn money for her family. At that time, Therese had taken care of her younger siblings during the day and continued working on her portraits at night. It had been a difficult time for everybody and the whole family had been overjoyed when Mrs. Belivet finally held her certificate as a weaver in her hands.

When Therese had left her home again, her sisters Eda and Martha had been twelve and thirteen years old and could support her mother at the weaving mill, while sixteen-year-old Meggy had found employment as a maid. For several years, everything went fine, until Therese received the message that her youngest sister Beth was ill with severe pneumonia. Therese had sent her mother money immediately, so that she could pay the doctor. However, the remedy that the doctor had prescribed had been used up quickly, and Beth’s fever still hadn’t decreased yet.

Therese’s mother had begged her to get a commissioned work as soon as possible, and when the Earl of Essex had sent her a request, she had agreed immediately, although she would have preferred an offer in Bavaria that had reached her the same day. But time was pressing and the Earl would pay much more than the Duke in Bavaria. So Therese sincerely hoped that she would get enough money from this commission to be able to get the medicine that Beth needed so urgently.

The Earl’s slight coughing brought Therese back to the present. “Interesting,” he muttered, straightening his back. “Maybe you will breathe some new life into this, Mr. Belivet. I think I will take a shot at it.”

“Thank you very much, my lord.” Therese tried to cover her relief with a polite smile. “What kind of painting would you like?”

“Oil on canvas.“ Harold Aird gave Therese her still life back. “And I want you to start today.”

Today? Therese almost dropped her painting. There was no way she could start today. She didn’t even have her colors with her.

”I will arrange for your tools to be brought here.“ The Earl obviously wasn’t interested in Therese’s opinion, nor in her schedule. “The painting has to be finished when the prospective members of the parliament arrive here.”

Which parliament? Therese didn’t know much about politics, but everybody knew that the King had been ruling without a parliament for more than ten years. Tyranny, her mother had called it just last week at dinner.

“Yes, you heard correctly, Mr. Belivet.” The Earl amused himself over Therese’s ignorance. “Charles is out of money and now he wants to convene a parliament to get it in this way. A week before the establishment, all members of the prospective House of Lords will meet here so that we can prepare ourselves. The King is a stubborn egoist who will plunge the country into ruin if we don’t stop him.” The Earl scrutinized her. “You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this.” He cleared his throat. “I want you to be aware that the elite of England will gather here in a few weeks. And the portrait has to be finished by then, so make an effort.”

The Earl’s arrogance irritated Therese, but she was too well-behaved to give him the answer he deserved. “When will this meeting take place, my lord?” she asked instead.

“On April 6.” The Earl searched for a document on his desk but gave up when he didn’t find it. “And I expect the painting to hang in the gallery by then.”

Therese turned pale. “That’s not much time, my lord. And the painting won’t be fully dry by then.”

“I don’t care about that, as long as it’s finished. Just be careful during the carriage,” the Earl said impatiently. “And now you will tell the staff where your tools need to be collected. That way we won’t waste any time and my spouse will finally stop her nerve-racking harpsichord play.”

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BeitragVerfasst: Sa 22. Jul 2017, 17:58 
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Chapter 2



Therese told the servant Oliver the name of her tavern, then somebody led her to a chamber where she was supposed to wait until her luggage arrived. The sparsely furnished chamber was actually made for servants and there was nothing in it but a chest for clothes, a bed, and a chair. At least everything was clean and tidy, as opposed to the room in the tavern at the edge of town that Therese had chosen for the nights. She had deliberately looked for a cheap shelter so that more money would be left for Beth.

A distinct knocking startled Therese. “Here’s your luggage, Sir.” Two older servants, who Therese hadn’t seen before, stood in the door and handed her the things she needed: the easel, the palette, her colors, her work coat, small cloths – Therese stopped short. Where was her bag with the colors? She had already prepared the powders in Sudbury but didn’t have had the time to ground the colors.

“Didn’t you find my bag?“ Even if she would only grind pigments and sketch today, Therese needed the colors urgently. It wouldn’t look good if she disappointed the Earl already at the beginning of the process.

“Yes, we found it.“ A third servant entered the room and put the bag on the small table. “You’ve also asked for a big cloth, Sir.” He pulled out a white linen cloth from under his arm.

“Thank you, that’s very kind.“ Therese took the cloth from the man’s hands and put it on the already crowded table. She would need it as a bottom layer when she ground the colors. One look into the bag revealed that all vessels including color powder and colored liquid were still there: malachite, cinnabar, ruby shellac, lead white, invory black, calcium carbonate, lapis lazuli, orpiment, cobalt, azurite, linseed oil, turpentine etc. – nothing seemed to have gotten lost.

Relieved, Therese sent a quick prayer to heaven and the three servants again led her through a maze of double doors and rooms, until they left her alone in a chamber that was obviously used as a music room. The gold-decorated harpsichord she had heard earlier stood in the middle of the room and on a round oak table was a mandolin, a flute and a violin – instruments that must have already been played today because they weren’t in their cases.

Since it would probably take a while until she’d get company, Therese curiously stepped over to the harpsichord. The gilded wood of the instrument was elaborately decorated and surely at least as valuable as the harpsichord she had been allowed to play at court in Utrecht occasionally.

“Do you play the harpsichord, Mr. Belivet?”

Therese spun around when she heard a deep female voice behind her. How had the Countess entered the room without Therese noticing her? “Excuse me, Countess. I didn’t touch anything.” Therese bowed guiltily. She could only hope that the Countess was less persnickety than her husband.

Indeed, the smile on Carolyn Aird’s face indicated that she didn’t hold Therese’s curiosity against her. “Do you enjoy music, Mr. Belivet?” she asked, offering Therese her hand for a kiss.

“Oh, yes, my lady.“ Therese felt herself blushing when she took the offered hand. It wasn’t difficult to understand why Therese’s predecessors had failed in their task. The whole appearance of the Countess was so breathtaking that Therese had to look twice to make sure that her senses weren't tricking her. Just in time, before it would have been impolite, Therese brushed a kiss on the offered hand.

“You didn’t answer my question, Mr. Belivet.” The Countess went to the harpsichord, scrutinizing her. “Do you play the harpsichord?”

Therese made the mistake of looking at the Countess directly. Would it even be possible to capture this beauty on canvas? The delicate features, the blue-grey eyes, the high, distinct cheekbones, the full blonde hair – maybe she actually should reject the commission and travel to Bavaria instead. If time hadn’t pressed so much, she would have seriously considered the thought. “I was lucky enough to have the occasion to do it once in a while, my lady,” Therese responded hesitatingly.

“Well, play something then.“ The Countess pointed to the bench in front of the harpsichord, waiting for Therese to take a seat.

Was she really supposed to play something? It felt like blasphemy to put her hands on the keys where Carolyn Aird’s hands had slid only a few hours ago. “I’m not sure whether I still remember the piece,” she muttered and closed her eyes, searching inside of herself for the tune she had played so often at court. It had been so long ago that she was afraid her fingers wouldn’t remember it anymore.

Even with her eyes closed, Therese could sense the Countess’s nearness and the sweet smell of her perfume entered her nostrils. A bit too timidly, she played the first notes, but after a few beats her nervousness decreased and she started to connect with the music. The instrument had an amazing, rich sound and Therese gradually got lost in the melody that she hadn’t played for years. Only when the last sound faded and Therese opened her eyes, did she become aware of her surroundings again and looked at the keys with embarrassment.

“That’s beautiful.“ The Countess‘s voice trembled slightly.

”William Byrd,” Therese whispered without looking at her.

“Do you have any scores?“

“I’m afraid not, my lady.” Therese shook her head. Never in her life had she owned any scores, but the Countess didn’t need to know that.

“What a pity.” The soft look on the Countess’s face changed in the blink of an eye. “But that’s not why we are here,” she said in a cold tone and Therese immediately got up with a bow.

“Please excuse my inattentiveness, my lady,” she said formally. “I have the honor to portray you, and your spouse wants me to start with the sessions today.”

“That’s right.” The Countess also rose from the bench. “He wants to have the painting finished by the time the members of the House of Lords will be here. Unfortunately, I seem to be a terrible model, though,” she added with a sigh. “To be honest, I’m not really looking forward to this.”

“I’ll try to torture you as little as possible,” Therese promised. Of course, the Countess was sick of sitting for a painting after all this time, and maybe this explained the bored, aloof look Therese had seen on some of the portraits. “May I ask you where you want me to portray you, Countess?”

Carolyn Aird shrugged. “Why don’t we stay here? I’m going to sit on that chair over there at the window and you can start whatever you have to do.“ She was already on her way to the chair when Therese reached out to hold her back.

“I’d like to make some suggestions first, if I’m allowed to.” Therese blushed when she let go of the Countess’s arm.

“You do?” The Countess arched her eyebrows and stepped back. “What kind of suggestions?”

Therese wasn’t sure whether her words would be considered totally rude, but if she was supposed to portray Carolyn Aird, she could only do it her way. “For a start, I wouldn’t recommend a head portrait like the other paintings. Instead, I’d prefer a whole-body portrait which would show off your character to advantage.”

“My character?” The Countess laughed scoffingly. “I doubt you know anything about my character, Mr. Belivet.”

”I’m talking about your beauty, my lady,” Therese corrected herself, but the Countess’s expression told her that it was already too late. Apparently, she had no intention of revealing her character to the painting’s viewer. Unfortunately though, this was exactly what Therese had hoped for. It was part of her job to make the inner world of a person visible for the outer world. But how was she supposed to do that when the model refused? Would it be possible to make the Countess cooperate with her instead of working against her?

“I don’t care what kind of painting you create, as long as you’re working quickly and my husband is satisfied with the result,” the Countess stated. “Just do what you think is right.”

“Thank you, my lady.” Therese tried to hide the trembling of her hands by crossing her arms in front of her chest. Why was she so nervous? She had painted hundreds of people in her life and there weren’t many things that were able to make her get worked up anymore. But there was something about Carolyn Aird that threw her out of her routine. “Besides, if I may say so, my lady …” Therese said carefully. “I‘d recommend you wear a different dress.”

“Why?” the Countess objected harshly. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“Please, don’t get me wrong, my lady, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it,” Therese hastened to assure. “But the background you chose, ” she pointed at the chair in front the window, “would probably match better with a red or a blue dress than with this green one.”

“I see.“ The Countess tapped at her upper lip, while she was considering Therese’s proposal. “Please, excuse me for a little while then, Mr. Belivet.”

Before Therese knew what was happening, the Countess was out the door and she was alone again. Therese felt chilly when she walked around in the room and it hadn’t anything to do with the temperature. For some reason, the room felt empty without the Countess, though it was a really beautiful place and all these music instruments called Therese to play them.

Therese took care not to touch anything, though. Instead, she was completely engaged in creating an inner vision of the portrait at hand. For some reason, her resistance to paint the Countess had suddenly vanished into thin air. In fact, she couldn’t even wait to draw the first lines. There was an unusual restlessness in her that wasn’t unpleasant, but rather confusing. It happened not often that she waited for a painting process so impatiently, but at the same time she felt a strange fear she couldn’t quite explain.

Sighing, Therese took her easel and tried different angles where she would stand. Did the Countess like her own life? Why did she seem so hard and dismissive in one moment, and so sensitive and vulnerable in the next? Therese thought of the melancholia she had heard in the Countess’s harpsichord play and of the whiff of loneliness that seemed to surround her. To Therese the Countess felt like an exotic bird that was hindered to leave its cage. Maybe it was better to open the window a tiny crack.

“Is this more appropriate?“

For the second time on this day, Therese spun around when she heard the voice of the Countess behind her. The lady of the house now wore a blue dress without a collar which looked like the ones Therese had only seen in Italy before. It was low-cut and a silver silk scarf flowed around the shoulders and was tied together in a knot over the chest. The scarf’s silver color matched the wide sleeves and also the precious pearl necklace around the Countess’s neck.

Maybe it was the unusual dress that made Therese feel like the Countess was from another world. “Much better, my lady.” Therese cleared her throat, escorting Carolyn Aird to her chair.

“You opened the window?” The Countess hesitated when she sat down.

“That way we will get different light effects,” Therese explained. “But I will close it, if you wish. I don’t want you to catch a cold, my lady.”

“No thanks,” the Countess replied impatiently. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”

Therese went to her easel, taking her time to let the scene in front of her sink in. At first glance, it looked as if the Countess had gotten herself into the session, but Therese could feel how she was shutting herself away inside. How could it be that such a beautiful soul would do anything to hide itself from the world?

Therese decided not to push the Countess – it was wiser to give her more time to adjust to the situation. She knew all too well about the intimacy of portrait sessions and how difficult it was for most models to be depicted by a person who was a complete stranger to them. Furthermore, Therese noticed that she also needed time to compose herself. For some odd reason, her heart was beating so fast, as if she had never painted anything before.

“If I may, my lady, I’d like to make a slight correction of your posture.” Therese walked to the Countess and cautiously put her hand under her chin. Immediately, the Countess’s body stiffened and Therese tried to sound as calm as possible. “Lift your face just a little, please,” she whispered, guiding the chin to the correct position with her fingertips. “And turn both of your shoulders a little more towards me, please.” The skin was warm and soft under her fingertips and Therese involuntarily stopped breathing when the Countess’s gaze met her own. There was skepticism and astonishment in those blue eyes, but also something else that made Therese blush. Hastily, she withdrew her hand.

Therese quickly went back to her easel, in order to evaluate the view from a safe distance. The Countess sat calmly, but with alert eyes, on her chair. The warm light of the afternoon sun fell through the open window on her head, giving the blonde hair a golden glow.

“What’s the matter?” the Countess asked when Therese didn’t move.

“Something is missing.” Therese shook her head. “I can’t paint you like that, my lady.”

“Missing?” The Countess looked at her skeptically. “Do you mock me?”

“No, not at all.” Therese‘s face reddened. “Please, allow me a quick moment.”

The Countess cleared her throat when Therese took her time again to drink in the scene. Most of the people Therese portrayed were hungry for attention and enjoyed being focused on for a while. Not Carolyn Aird, though. The subliminal tension in her body betrayed that she felt like a dissected insect and obviously she had undertaken the inconvenience of another portrait only for her husband’s sake.

“I need to stand a little farther away, so that I can include part of the harpsichord into the picture,” Therese decided. “You like to play it after all, don’t you?”

“You are a sensitive man, Mr. Belivet,” the Countess said while Therese carried the easel to the desired spot. “How is it possible that you aren’t yet married?”

Therese noticed immediately that Carolyn Aird tried to reverse their roles, in order to make her the vulnerable person in this situation. Usually, Therese ignored strategic maneuvers like that, but she sensed that it would help the Countess if she allowed her to turn the focus away from herself. “If one travels as much as I do, it’s better to stay alone,” she said carefully, reaching for her charcoal crayon. “A life like that can’t be asked of any family.”

“I see.” The Countess obviously had difficulty not changing her position anymore, but she obediently remained still, while Therese drew the first thin lines for the preliminary sketch. “Have you never felt the need to marry someone?”

Therese almost dropped the crayon in her hand. Did the Countess want to know if she had had affairs in her life? “I have my work,” Therese said purposefully casually, and that wasn’t even a lie.

Sometimes it seemed odd to Therese that the people around her fell in love and got married and had children, while she herself didn’t seem to have these needs. Only once had she regretted that she would never know what it meant to love someone physically. That had been two years ago, when she had portrayed the son of a Scottish Duke. Richard was his name and Therese had gotten along with him really well. So well, that she had almost told him her secret. But at the last moment she had changed her mind. Now she was glad that she hadn’t told him anything, because there was too much at stake. If somebody found out that she went through life as a man, the dungeon would probably be one of the more convenient consequences.

Therese looked up from the white canvas and realized with relief that the Countess had relaxed a little bit. Her left arm rested on the armrest, her right arm in her lap, and on the table Therese had placed the violin. She intended to integrate it into the painting as well, as a symbol of sensibility and femininity.

“Satisfied?” the Countess asked with a slightly mocking undertone.

“Yes, my lady. Thank you for your patience.“ Therese grabbed her crayon again. Finally she had found the approach she had been looking for. The crayon flew over the canvas almost by itself and little by little she forgot time and space.

The Countess obviously had decided to let her do her work and sat still without saying a word. Yet, Therese felt the turmoil under the surface. The more Therese captured her, the more uncomfortable the Countess seemed to feel. “If you’re so content with your life, why do you seem so sad then?” the Countess asked suddenly.

Surprised, Therese looked up and noticed that the Countess was watching her attentively. “I don’t know if I have an answer to that,” she admitted. Why couldn’t the Countess just let her do her work? Did she have so much to hide that she had to distract attention away from herself all the time?

With long, delicate moves, Therese created the picture’s background. The window with its round patterns, the curtain with the drawstring, the dark brown leather chair, the violin on the table, and the light that fell through the open window, making the Countess’s appearance even more vivid. “It depends on what you mean by happiness,” she said vaguely.

The Countess seemed to consider her words. “Is that a trick to hear my thoughts without answering my questions?” she said eventually.

Therese smiled without interrupting her work. “It’s more important that I know my model than that my model knows me.”

“Are you saying you’ll create a better painting, if you know what I understand by happiness?” There it was again, the Countess’s slightly scornful undertone.

“In a certain way, yes.“

“In what way?“

“That’s difficult to say.“ Therese corrected a wrong line on the canvas. “That’s the way it is. Outside and inside are two sides of the same coin.“

The Countess shook her head, but stopped her movement when she noticed Therese’s disapproving look. “You’re a strange person, Theodore Belivet,” she muttered as she brought her head back to the right position.

Therese wiped her hand in her cloth, hoping the Countess didn’t notice her blushing. “Why?”

“I don’t know.” The Countess smiled. “Flung out of space.“

Therese crumpled up the cloth and put it back in its place. Usually, even reserved people opened up to her relatively fast, although she almost didn’t reveal anything about herself. A little bit of kind attention was enough to make people talk about themselves. They enjoyed that there was somebody listening to them, somebody they could share their worries and thoughts with.

Again, not Carolyn Aird. Therese had seen by the other paintings that she had already given the previous painters a hard time. At the first glance, she was polite and kind, but on closer inspection, she stayed sealed like an oyster. Therese knew that the only way to get to know her better was to reveal something herself. “Maybe I look sad because I’m worried about my sick sister,” Therese said, stepping back from the easel to get a better view on the picture.

She was surprised when the expression in the Countess’s face changed visibly. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said with sincere regret. “Is it serious?”

Therese hadn’t expected the lump that suddenly formed in her throat and she nodded mutely when her voice threatened to fail her. She immediately regretted that she had told the Countess about Beth. In the future, she would have to be more careful with the things she revealed.

The Countess seemed to notice that Therese struggled to regain her composure. “We should call it a day, Mr. Belivet,” she said, loosening her shoulders. “I’m going to get a stiff neck.”

“As you wish, my lady.” Therese was grateful for the change of topic and carefully put her painting utensils aside. As unusual as the work with the Countess was, at least the result didn’t seem to suffer. Therese couldn't be more pleased with what she had accomplished today.

“How many sessions will you need, Mr. Belivet?”

“I guess, I need about seven days, my lady. Maybe nine.” Therese folded her easel. “I can do the rest on my own.”

”That’s less time than the others needed.” The Countess smiled but Therese imagined that she heard a touch of regret. “Where are you staying?”

“At a tavern near the London Bridge, my lady.”

“At that old hole?” The Countess shook her head, horrified. “Tomorrow morning you will bring your baggage here and move to one of the servant chambers.”

Therese raised her eyebrows, not believing what she had heard. Was the Countess serious? She was inviting her to stay at the estate? It was a really generous gesture, but there was no way Therese could accept it. “That’s really kind of you, my lady,” she said politely. “But I don’t want to be of any inconvenience for you and your spouse.”

“Actually, it will be much less inconvenient if I’m able to call you for a session anytime,” the Countess explained, unimpressed. “Tomorrow morning a carriage will wait in front of your tavern. A servant will show you your chamber as soon as you arrive here.”

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Chapter 3



When Therese looked out of the window the next morning, a black coach actually waited in front of the tavern. The coachman was feeding his horses, while talking animatedly with Mr. Thomson, the corpulent innkeeper of the tavern. The coachman seemed to have all the time in the world, but Therese tried nonetheless to get dressed as quickly as possible, so that he wouldn’t have to wait too long in the cold.

In spite of Therese’s attempt to hurry, it always took some time to wash and dress herself. In her haste, she had tightened the chest bandage a bit too strongly, and now she felt an unpleasant pain beyond her left breast. But she didn’t want to make the coachman wait even longer and hoped she would be able to correct the mistake at the Essex House.

Since she had never sat in a coach boot before, she was concerned she would get sick in it. Just in case she had to throw up, she took a cloth with her. Fortunately, her painting utensils were already at the Earl’s estate, so she only had to carry the case with her clothes down the narrow stairs to the tavern exit. Clearing her throat, Therese stepped out of the door and raised her hat.

“Good morning, Mr. Belivet.“ The coachman immediately interrupted his conversation with Mr. Thomson and opened the carriage door for her. “The Earl has already paid for your stay, so you don’t owe Mr. Thomson anything.”

“Oh.“ Therese got into the small coach. The Earl had already paid off her debts? What if she disappointed the man like all the other painters had done before her? Therese forbid herself to think about that now and looked around the boot, noticing that it was more spacious than it had looked from the outside. Four people could sit here and Therese was glad she could spread herself out a little. The click of the coachman’s tongue put the noticeable vehicle in motion and shortly afterwards, the constant jerking of the carriage made Therese’s tiredness reappear. Her mind had still been poring over the encounter with the Countess so that she had hardly slept last night.

Again and again, parts of yesterday’s conversation had flashed through her mind and had left a strange melancholia behind. Nobody had ever asked Therese whether she was happy, and she had never allowed herself to think about it since she had left her home in Sudbury. Life wasn’t meant to make you happy after all. Living meant surviving, Therese had learned that lesson very early in her life. If she earned enough money to support her family, that should be enough. She had always loved her work and she liked traveling, at least most of the time. She gained an insight into the customs and habits of many people, especially of her clients, and since she was a curious person she usually absorbed new impressions like a sponge. She was always open for new experiences, and when she had to fold up her tents again, she usually did it without regret.

Yet, Therese couldn’t deny that her life entailed a solitude she usually didn’t feel. But last night the feeling had crawled into her bed like an uninvited guest and had constricted her throat. Why had the Countess seen what she didn’t even admit to herself? And why was she able to confuse Therese so easily without revealing anything herself?

Carolyn Aird was like a big riddle Therese would love to solve. She could hardly wait to see her again and the thought alone made something leap in her stomach, as if a jaunty little manikin had moved there.

Outside, the fog was rising above the treetops and it was clear that it would be sunny all day. The carriage passed meadows and woods and Therese deeply inhaled the moldy smell of the ground. She loved it, when nature started to stir and it unmistakably became spring.

Soon she could see the water of the Thames, knowing that it wouldn’t last long now until they turned onto the street named Strand, where the Essex House was situated. Without doubt, this was one of the most elegant streets of London and Therese would have loved to linger in front of every single property to get a closer look.

Nevertheless, she was glad when the drive was over and as soon as she got out of the coach, the elated agitation from the previous day captured her again. The servant Oliver took her case and a young maid, not older than sixteen, guided Therese to her new chamber. “Please let us know if you need anything, Sir,” she said, curtsying shyly. “You will get a cup of tea very soon.”

“Whom do I call?“

“My name is Sarah, Sir.“ The girl looked bashfully at the ground.

“Thank you, Sarah. I’ll call for you, if I need anything.“ Therese gave the maid an encouraging nod. For some reason she felt the need to let her know that she didn’t need to fear her.

After Sarah had left, Therese started to get a closer look at her new chamber. It was a little bigger than the one from the previous day and luckily Therese detected a washing bowl on the table. In her mind, she had already turned over how she was supposed to accomplish her morning toilet without making the servants suspicious. But the washing bowl would save her and Therese dove her hands into the delicious water with relief. She was so lucky, she didn’t even have to pay for the lodging, which meant that there would be more money left for Beth’s medicine.

Eventually, Sarah brought the tea, and after Therese had drunk it sip by sip, she felt like exploring the estate a little more - hopefully nobody expected her to stay in her chamber the whole day, just waiting to be called. On her way to the Essex House, she had seen that the Airds’ house had a huge garden adjoining the Thames. So she would take care of her chest bandage very quickly and then call for Sarah.

Therese breathed in deeply, when the pain on her chest finally subsided. She took a crème from her case and put it on the tender red stripes the bandage had left on her skin. She bit her lips when she had to tie the new bandage over the tender spot. It happened a lot that her skin complained about the tight bandage and Therese couldn’t believe that her body still hadn’t grown accustomed to it after all these years.

Finally, Therese was ready to leave her chamber and Sarah led her to the gardens. The backyard was huge and very neatly arranged. A tree-lined path went directly from the house to the Thames and Therese decided to walk on the main path before she would explore the many byways.

Small fields of snowdrops covered the ground on both sides of the path and, stopping at the back of the garden, Therese could hear voices from the ships on the water. She was about to step closer to the bank, when she heard voices that didn’t come from the water but somewhere from the garden.

Wasn’t she alone? Therese took a path that would bring her closer to the voices, but stopped abruptly when she spotted the Countess and the Earl. She was too far away to understand their words, but it was obvious that they were fighting. Both of them seemed to be quite upset and Therese turned around quickly to not be indiscrete.

She didn’t feel any desire to explore the gardens anymore and went back to her chamber, deeply in thoughts. What had the couple been fighting about? Not for the first time, Therese wondered whether Carolyn Aird liked her life. Why did she try so hard to keep people at a distance? And why was the music she played so sad?

As soon as Therese entered her chamber again, she spread a linen cloth on the floor and started to ground her colors. She was still so distracted by the incident in the gardens that the procedure took her longer than usual. When Sarah knocked at her door, telling her that she was supposed to meet the Countess in the music room, Therese asked for a little more time, so that she could finish her preparations. A moment after she followed Sarah to the music room. She hopefully would find it by herself in a few days, but right now the Essex House still seemed like an impenetrable labyrinth to Therese.

As to be expected, the music room was still empty, when Therese entered and she was more than tempted to sit down at the harpsichord. Would the Countess allow her to play it again? Therese probably had to earn this favor first. In order to resist the temptation, she started to set up her easel and disposed all her utensils.

This time she noticed when the door opened and the Countess entered. Therese’s face flushed when she bowed politely. As discussed, the Countess wore the blue dress from the previous day and Therese found her appearance even more overwhelming than the last time. How could somebody of this world be so beautiful? Therese hurried to come out of her paralysis, unbending again.

“How are you, Mr. Belivet,” the Countess greeted her, heading for the chair at the window. “Are you pleased with the chamber you’ve been allocated?”

“Yes, thank you. It’s really wonderful, my lady.” Therese busied herself with the brushes to gain some time. Surely, she would be able to think straight again, if only her heart would stop beating so fast.

“That’s good to hear.“ The Countess gave her a brief smile, but she seemed gloomy. Had it something to do with the fight Therese had witnessed earlier? Therese wished she wasn't Carolyn Aird’s portrait painter but a friend she would want to confide in. “Let’s start the session,” the Countess urged.

“As you wish, my lady.“ Therese opened the window again and stepped next to the Countess. “Is this all right, or is your neck ...?”

“I have my scarf, thank you. And fresh air hasn’t hurt anybody yet,” the Countess impatiently interrupted her. “Just start working, so that we can get it over with.”

“All right, my lady.“ Therese took a deep breath, when she reached for her palette. If only the Countess wouldn’t see their work together as an annoying duty. Therese had really been looking forward to the session and the Countess’s hostile attitude hurt her.

In the course of yesterday’s session the Countess had gradually opened up to her and Therese hoped that this would be the case now as well. She couldn’t help thinking of the moment, when she had stood closely in front the Countess. Only with her fingertips she had touched her chin, but it had been enough to feel the touch in her whole body. If only the Countess would give her the chance to correct her posture again. But she sat in her chair exactly the way Therese had requested yesterday.

“Is there anything wrong?” The Countess watched Therese attentively.

“Everything’s fine, my lady.” Therese reached for one of her brushes and started to paint.

For some time, they didn’t say a word and Therese delved into her work. Every now and then, she raised her head to compare the situation on canvas with reality and every time her heart beat faster, looking at the Countess. But she didn’t have time to think about that. The more she focused on her job, the sooner Beth would get her medicine.

“How’s your sister?“ the Countess asked as if she had read Therese’s mind. “Have you heard anything?”

“No, my lady.“ Therese shook her head. “But if I may, I’d like to visit her in a few days. She’s living in Sudbury.”

“I’m sure my husband will understand that.” The Countess nodded. “Does she get the right medicine?”

Therese sighed, reaching for a thicker brush. Why couldn’t the Countess ask questions about the weather or something? It was impossible not to answer her and Therese hated to lie. Her entire identity was a lie and all the more important it was to her to speak the truth in all other respects. “Unfortunately not, my lady.”

“Why not?”

“Because … the money is lacking.” Therese carefully corrected a brush stroke, soaking herself into her work again. It was obvious that the Countess had several questions on the tip of her tongue and Therese was grateful that she had the tact not to utter them.

“Theodore?”

“My lady?” Therese nervously looked up from the canvas.

“Why don’t you ask my husband for a first instalment?”

Therese stared into the Countess’s blue eyes. The arrogant coolness that had surrounded her only minutes ago had suddenly vanished. “My lady …” Therese said hesitatingly. “The Earl made it very clear that I won’t get paid if he doesn’t like the painting. And I certainly understand that. When you’re still unsatisfied after six paintings, you don’t have much trust with the seventh candidate.”

“Yes, I know.” The Countess sighed. “Your chances are not very encouraging, are they?”

“Have you been pleased with the other portraits?” Therese had wanted to ask that question since they first met, but hadn’t had the courage to do so.

The Countess smiled without changing her posture. “That’s not what this is about.”

“What is it about?“ Therese regretted her question as soon as it had left her lips. She wasn’t entitled to talk to the Countess like that.

But Carolyn Aird didn’t seem to take offence at her question. “He wants to impress the other lords,” she said as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “We are going to have high-ranking visitors here in a few weeks.”

“Yes, the Earl told me about it.” Therese remembered the conversation with the Earl all too well. What kind of a weird idea was it to impress the soon-to-be members of the House of Lords with a portrait of the wife, when every single painting naturally had to pale compared to the Countess in person? “What kind of a portrait would you have wanted?” Therese asked, continuing to create the painting background.

“A picture with my daughter.” An almost imperceptible shadow flashed over the Countess’s face, which told Therese that she shouldn’t press the issue any further.

“In case you will be satisfied with my work later,” Therese said without looking up from the canvas, “I’d be honored to paint a portrait of you and your daughter.” It was quite common that aristocrats wanted portraits of their children as well and Therese herself had portrayed many sons and daughters. Only now she realized that there wasn’t a single picture of the Airds’ daughter in the entire gallery. “Or is she still too young?”

“Not at all. Nerinda is four years old and she can sit still really well.” The pure love that resonated in the Countess’s words touched Therese’s heart. The softness in her voice didn’t quite match with the bitter line that had formed around her mouth.

“Your husband would have preferred a son?” The question had slipped out of Therese’s mouth before she could stop herself. What was going on with her? She usually never had a loose tongue.

The Countess looked at her, surprised. For a brief moment, she hesitated, then her face hardened. “Every man wants a son,” she said as if she was talking about the weather. “And a lord even more.”

Therese went silent. Her father had also wanted a son, who would take over his weaving mill, but he had loved his daughters as much as if they had been sons. What kind of a view had a man on women, when he preferred a painted portrait over his real wife and when he refused to commission a portrait of his daughter, only because she wasn’t a boy?

Therese guessed that the Airds had probably tried to have a son for years, but apparently the efforts hadn’t been successful. “I’d be really happy if I had the honor to portray your daughter,” Therese said with emphasis. “Whenever you want.”

“Are you serious?” The Countess skeptically furrowed her brows.

”Of course I am.” Therese went to the Countess who had unconsciously changed her posture. “If you allow …” Therese gently touched the Countess’s elbow to push it a little more downwards. Even with the cloth of the dress between them, the sudden nearness had the same confusing effect like the last time. Therese’s fingers subtly trembled, while she was cautiously pushing a blonde curl away that had fallen onto the Countess’s face. Her hand lingered on the white cheek when the forlorn expression in her blue eyes went straight to her heart. “I will paint you and your daughter, my lady,” she whispered. “Even if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

The Countess raised her arm and grabbed Therese’s wrist. “We will find a solution for your sister, Theodore.”

Therese swallowed hard. She felt hot and cold at the same time and went back to her easel in a hurry.

For a long while, neither of the two women spoke and Therese focused on her work again. Just like before, she looked up every now and then to adjust her draws with the reality, although she felt like the Countess’s features had already become branded on her mind like an inner landscape. However, every time she looked up, she felt a brief moment of surprise inside of herself. The presence of the Countess overwhelmed her time and again, like the waves of a big ocean crashing constantly over her.

“Have lunch with us, Mr. Belivet,” the Countess said, suddenly breaking the silence.

Therese stopped her move and wiped her hands on the cloth. Actually she would like nothing more, but the idea to sit across the Earl at lunch clearly intimidated her.

“My husband has gone hunting,“ the Countess explained as if she had guessed Therese’s thoughts. “It would be just my daughter and me.”

Therese nodded, relieved. “I’d be honored, my lady.”

Therese took Nerinda Aird into her heart at first sight. She was very well-behaved for a four year old girl but seemed to be quite unimpressed by the world of the adults. They hadn’t even sat down at the table yet, when Nerinda had already told Therese how much she would love to get a dog, but that her father wouldn’t allow it before her sixth birthday. And she confessed to Therese the tricks she had come up with to outsmart her father so that she would get the dog sooner.

It didn’t seem to bother Nerinda that her mother could hear all of her little manipulation attempts. Indeed, Carolyn Aird didn’t interfere in the conversation, but from time to time she shook her head about her daughter’s finesse.

Several times Therese exchanged a look with the Countess across the table, because it was simply too adorable how unconcernedly Nerinda told Therese her deepest secrets. Even Nerinda’s mother didn’t know that she had hidden some meat in the cabinet of her room, which she had already collected for the dog that she was hoping to get soon. That explained the unpleasant smell in Nerinda’s chamber. Until now, her mother had attributed the cadaveric odor to an undetected dead rat in her room and almost dropped her glass at her daughter’s revelation.

“You never get bored with Nerinda,” the Countess stated, after she had sent a servant to Nerinda’s room to remove the rotten food. “She always comes up with something new.”

Therese enjoyed this new side of Carolyn Aird. She had braced herself for a stiff lunch, like she was used to with her customers. But Nerinda was really refreshing and the Countess looked so relaxed in the presence of her daughter, like Therese had never seen her before. Her love for Nerinda exuded from every pore of her body and intensified Therese’s decision to paint mother and daughter one day – as long as the Earl wouldn’t forbid it.

“My daughter has a little crush on you, Mr. Belivet.” The Countess smiled while the main course was being served. “Usually she doesn’t like men.”

“Then I’m lucky.” Therese smiled back. She was glad the Countess was too distracted to notice that Therese couldn’t take her eyes from her. Watching the Countess eat was a sensual experience. Not that she ate differently from other people but her elegant moves fascinated Therese. Every time the Countess took the fork to her mouth, Therese wished she could be one of the peas, just to experience at least once how it must feel to be touched by Carolyn Aird’s red lips.

“What kind of a disease does your sister have, Mr. Belivet?” the Countess asked while a servant poured more wine into Therese’s glass.

Therese needed a moment to compose herself. “She’s suffering from a severe pneumonia, my lady,” she responded, pushing a piece of meat on her fork.

“Pneumonia?“ The Countess arched an eyebrow. “Then you shouldn’t lose too much time, Mr. Belivet.”

Therese swallowed the bite in her throat before she responded. “That’s not so easy, my lady …”

“Do you think her life is in danger?” the Countess interrupted her.

Therese hesitated. She didn’t want to appear too desperate in front of the Countess, but she couldn’t deny the seriousness of the situation.

“Mr. Belivet, you will get your sister’s medicine this very week,” the Countess decided. “I will advance any accruing costs, so don’t worry about that.”

Therese stared at her as if she had lost her mind. “But …” she stuttered. “What will I do if your husband doesn’t like my painting?”

“In that case you’ll give me back the money after your next commission,“ the Countess explained simply. “This won’t be your last work, will it?”

“That’s so very generous of you, my lady.” Therese lowered her gaze on her plate. What drove the Countess to make such an unusual suggestion? Was she just extremely kind or did she expect a service in return? But even if she did, Therese was ready to agree to her proposal, as long as it would help Beth.

“You should say yes to my offer, Mr. Belivet.” The Countess gave the servants a sign that they should clear the table. “We will skip our session tomorrow and drive to a pharmacist I know, in order to get the necessary remedy.”

“You want to come with me, my lady?” Therese was convinced she had heard incorrectly.

”Of course.” The Countess tenderly ruffled through her daughter’s blonde hair when the girl immediately demanded to accompany them. “I know some things about medicine and I will make sure that your sister will get the best care.”

It was too good to be true, but Therese couldn’t by any means find a rub in it. “I can’t thank you enough, my lady,” she said quietly and pushed her half empty plate towards a servant. Maybe if she exited this room, she would wake up in her bed because she had just been dreaming.

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Chapter 4



Therese got the rest of the day off and decided to take a long walk alongside the Thames. The walking did her tight limbs good and when she came back at dawn, she had a more or less clear head again after two confusing days. Yet, she didn’t find any rest in the evening and at night she dreamt of Beth and her sisters and of Nerinda and the Countess.

When Therese stepped out of the house after a substantial breakfast, the coach was already waiting. The Countess wasn’t there yet, but Nerinda already sat inside of the coach boot and asked Therese to join her. Once Therese sat down across from her, Nerinda wanted to play finger games with her. Therese had often played games like these in her childhood, but it had been so long ago that she couldn’t remember much. Nerinda, however, seemed to know every finger game that had ever been invented and keenly started to teach Therese several tricks.

The Countess smiled when she joined them and sat down next to her daughter. “I see that you’ve finally found somebody to play with you,” she teased Nerinda, who nodded eagerly.

“Mr. Belivet is a fast learner,” she said, demonstrating a new trick. “I know another game. Do you want me to show it to you?” she asked Therese politely.

Therese gladly granted Nerinda her wish, particularly because it helped to her to distract herself from the subliminal nausea that increased with each mile more. Her stomach obviously didn’t like sitting opposite the direction of travel, but now it was too late to change their sitting arrangements.

Nerinda, who sat across from her, noticed that Therese’s face had gone alarmingly pale and jogged her mother’s elbow. “Are you not feeling well, Mr. Belivet?” the Countess asked worriedly. “You’re as white as a sheet.”

At that point, Therese already felt so sick that she couldn’t even respond. As soon as the Countess had told the coachman to stop the vehicle, Therese felt better, but she was quite embarrassed by the incident. It was probably better for her to take a horse or to go to the pharmacist on foot.

But the Countess wanted none of that. “That’s out of the question,” she said and instructed Nerinda to switch seats with Therese. “I don’t like sitting over there either, but fortunately this kid doesn’t mind sitting on the opposite side,” she explained with a chuckle.

Therese smiled at her gratefully. Now that she had switched seats with Nerinda, her nausea had dissolved into thin air and she tried to focus on the finger games again. The latter wasn’t easy though since the coach boot was so small that she and the Countess had to move closer together, so close that their hips and thighs were touching. When the street was especially rough and bumpy, their clothes rubbed against each other, which constantly caused Therese to make mistakes with the finger games.

A subtle glance at the edge of the bench revealed that there actually was a little bit of space next to the Countess, and on Therese’s side a hand’s width of bench was visible, too. But neither of them moved apart. Somehow, it was exciting to sit so close to the Countess and Therese felt a constant humming in her limbs, as if she was a big string instrument that had started to vibrate.

She almost regretted when the carriage came to an abrupt halt. The Countess explained that they had arrived and as opposed to Therese, she was in a hurry to get off the coach. Grabbing Nerinda’s hand, she headed for a plain house that looked anything but trustworthy to Therese. The best pharmacist of London was supposed to live here?

The pyknic, plum old man, who opened the door after their loud knocking, looked more like a goblin than like a pharmacist. But when he led his three visitors through a narrow corridor to the back part of the house, Therese was amazed by the inexhaustible supply of dried herbs and other things on the shelves.

By request, Therese told the old man the names of the two remedies that her mother had named to her, but the Countess wasn’t satisfied with that. “George, we also need garlic, dandelion, fenugreek, camphor, eucalyptus oil, lavender oil, curcuma, black pepper and some ginger.”

“Very well, my love, but isn’t there something missing?“ The old man winked at the Countess.

Therese realized with surprise that the pharmacist didn’t address the Countess with the common my lady. Both of them acted quite intimately and Therese wondered what other secrets the Countess might have.

Carolyn Aird frowned, spreading the herbs on a table. “Well ...” she pondered aloud. “Will you give me a hint, George?”

“It has a bitter smell.” The pharmacist walked next to the Countess, paternally putting his hand on her back. “And you also take it for …”

“Oh, of course, the dianthus!” The Countess touched her forehead. “I’m so absent-minded these days,” she apologized.

“You have too many concerns,” the pharmacist said quietly, patting the Countess’s shoulder. “But one never unlearns medicine, my dear.” He bent towards Nerinda, stroking her head. “You’ve grown a lot, little lady,” he stated with a smile.

“That’s true,” Nerinda answered proudly. “Mom, we visit Uncle George far too rarely,” she complained to her mother. “It always smells so nice here.”

The Countess nodded. “You’re absolutely right, Nerinda. We should visit Uncle George a lot more often.”

Therese observed the conversation, intrigued by the familiar chitchat between the three people. They had to have known each other forever, but how would a Countess meet a plum, old pharmacist? Whatever the reason was, Therese didn’t have the time to ponder on it. More important was the question of how many pictures she would need to paint so that she would be able to pay for all these remedies.

The Countess asked old George to show her all the herbs on a certain shelf and two times she didn’t accept the ware because she found fault with the quality. Watching the two talking quietly to each other, Therese got more and more worried. Even though she was ready to give the shirt off her back for Beth’s health, the money she could procure was limited.

Eventually, the four of them went back to the front part of the house and Therese pulled out her wallet in order to at least pay what she could afford. But the Countess didn’t let her. “Mr. Belivet, you can clear the amount after my husband has paid you,” she said sternly, putting a handful of coins on the pharmacist’s table.

Ashamed, Therese put her wallet back in her bag. She hated to be in debt to somebody, but of course Beth’s life was more important than her pride.

“Where did you say your sister lives, Mr. Belivet?” the Countess asked when they took their seat in the coach again.

“In Sudbury, my lady.“

“That’s only a few hours from here,” the Countess pondered. “We shouldn’t waste any more time and bring her the medicine.”

“W-what?“ Therese’s head was spinning. How on earth could she manage that? Nobody in Sudbury knew that the painter Theodore Belivet and the weaver’s daughter Therese Belivet were one and the same. And how would her sisters react when she suddenly showed up as Theodore with the Countess of Essex in tow? Martha had such a loose tongue that she certainly would spill the beans by accident. And Eda wasn’t very good in pretending either.

“This is about your sister’s life, isn’t it?“ The Countess watched Therese with a whiff of irritation. She probably suspected that Therese didn’t really have a sick sister, but had only told her that to gain her trust.

“Yes, of course, my lady,” Therese heard herself say and tried to ignore the heavy stone in her stomach. “I just don’t know how to make up for your generosity. You’re just too kind.”

Maybe it was possible to let the Countess wait in the carriage in front of her home. What aristocrat would like to mingle with the poor people? Usually blue-blooded lords and ladies shied away from any contact with the ordinary people and why should Carolyn Aird be any different?

“Well, let’s go then.” The Countess gave the coachman a sign to set off. “But we have to take Nerinda home first. Sudbury is too far away."“

Indeed, Nerinda started to feel bored on their way back, although Therese tried her best to entertain her. Back at the Essex House, the Countess brought Nerinda inside and gave some instructions to the servants before she went back to the coach.

All of a sudden, it was strangely quiet in the carriage, now that Nerinda wasn’t with them anymore. Instead of her high voice, only the clopping of the hooves and the sound of wheels on stony ground were audible. The air was filled with the smell of grass and humid soil, and Therese felt a strange tension inside of herself that wasn’t uncomfortable but difficult to comprehend. She hardly dared to look at the Countess, and Carolyn Aird was staring mutely out of the window without saying anything either. It wasn’t an unpleasant silence but a necessary, mutual quietness, because everything else would have been inappropriate.

“We’re almost there, my lady,” Therese declared as they passed the first houses of Sudbury. Of course, the elegant coach awakened the citizen’s attention straightaway and Therese moved farther away from the coach’s window. It was unlikely that her neighbors would recognize her in these clothes, but it was better to be careful.

Finally, Therese gave the coachman the signal to stop. She was lucky, since the street of her parental home was almost empty this time of the day. Only her neighbor Charlotte sat in front of her house, cleaning her husband’s shoes. Like the other neighbors, she interrupted her work when she noticed the black coach, but to Therese’s great relief, the coach itself blocked the view of the descending people.

“I won’t let you wait too long, my lady,” Therese said as soon as she had left the carriage. But to her horror, the Countess didn’t intend to wait in the coach. “I will accompany you, of course,” she said decisively. “Who else is able to show your mother how to prepare the herbs? Like I said, I know some things about medicine.”

Therese shook her head in defeat. If she made a scene now, she would definitely raise the attention of all the neighbors. So it was wiser to assist the Countess in getting off the coach and to hope that her family would quickly understand the situation.

Therese thought she would faint when they walked the short path to the door. Worried, she looked at the Countess’s elegant shoes that were covered with Sudbury’s dusty ground after only a few steps.

Her heart skipped a beat when the front door opened and her mother appeared in the doorframe. But Eleonor Belivet hid her shock well and bowed deeply in front of the Countess before turning to Therese.

“It’s nice to see you, mother.” Therese gave her mother a stiff hug.

“My boy,” Mrs. Belivet said, smiling. “What a nice surprise.”

“We won’t stay long,” Therese explained. “The Countess was so kind to advance some money so that we were able to buy Beth’s medicine today. And now we’re here to bring it to you.”

”Oh, really? That’s too kind of you, Countess. How do we deserve such generosity?“ Mrs. Belivet’s eyes widened in disbelief, but Therese mutely asked her not to make a fuss. So Therese’s mother quickly swallowed her surprise and invited the Countess into her house. “Please, come inside, Countess. And please excuse the mess – we didn’t expect visitors today.”

The Countess ignored Mrs. Belivet’s excuse. “How is your daughter, Mrs. Belivet?” she asked, entering the house. “Your son told me that she’s suffering from severe pneumonia?”

“Yes, she is, my lady.” Therese’s mother sighed. “The fever hasn’t decreased and our Beth gets weaker by the day.”

“May I see her?” The Countess couldn’t see that Therese and her mother exchanged looks behind her back. But how was Therese supposed to explain to her mother without any words what was going on here? As unusual as the Countess’s question was, it would probably help if she saw Beth with her own eyes.

“If you will follow me, Lady Aird.” Mrs. Belivet showed them Beth’s room, asking the Countess not to step too close. “We don’t want you to get infected, my lady,” she apologized.

Beth looked even more miserable than when Therese had left Sudbury. She was barely skin and bones and her face had taken on a white-grey color. “Therese,” she whispered when she saw her sister entering, and a faint glow reached her eyes.

Therese looked at the Countess in panic, but luckily Beth had spoken so quietly that it was almost impossible to understand her. “Beth, my little one.” Therese walked to her sister’s bed and caressed her damp forehead. The risk of infection applied to her too, but Therese was convinced that she would have already caught the disease, if God had wanted it. “Don’t give up, Beth,” Therese whispered into her sister’s ear. “We’re bringing your medicine and I’ve brought somebody along, who happens to know a lot about this stuff.” Therese raised her head, looking at the Countess, who now stepped into Beth’s field of vision. “Beth, this is the Countess of Essex, Lady Aird.”

Beth had already closed her eyes again and it was hard to say whether she had heard Therese’s words or not. The Countess turned to Mrs. Belivet. “We should start to prepare the medicine.”

“Thank you, my lady. I’ll show you the way to the kitchen.” Mrs. Belivet hurried to open the door for the Countess.

Therese followed the two women, a little ashamed about the mess in the house. She knew that her family was so fully stretched with the work at the weaving mill and taking care of Beth that there wouldn’t be much time to keep the house clean. But she doubted that a countess who had more than twenty servants would know anything about that.

Therese’s mother didn’t want to leave Beth alone for too long, especially since Eda and Martha were busy at the weaving mill. So, she asked Therese if she would let the Countess teach her the preparation of the herbs. Mrs. Belivet was only halfway out of the door when the Countess had already stripped off her white gloves and started her work. Much to Therese’s surprise, Carolyn Aird seemed to be quite familiar with a kitchen. It remained undecided if she would be able to cook an entire meal, but as far as the preparation of herbs was concerned, she definitely knew the ropes. Again, Therese discovered a completely new side of the Countess.

“You have to crush the dianthus, then you add the fenugreek, the ginger and some black pepper. It’s a tea that your sister has to drink at least three times a day,” the Countess explained while Therese was spreading all the utensils on the kitchen table. “In addition, you need to mix the camphor, eucalyptus oil and lavender oil and then heat it. Beth needs to breathe the steam in as long as it’s still warm. It helps to dissolve the mucus and will make it easier for her to breathe.” The Countess helped Therese sort the herbs and create small piles while giving her further instructions. “We need the garlic for a soup and will add some honey or sugar to make it edible.”

Therese silently followed the instructions, trying at the same time to memorize every move, so that she would be able explain everything to her mother. More than once, she caught herself watching the Countess’s agile hands while she was preparing the herbs. Carolyn Aird had long, neat fingers which apparently didn’t shy away from work. Yet, they were white and delicate, as a lady’s hands were supposed to be.

It felt confusingly normal, working side by side with the Countess, as if they stood together in the kitchen every day. It was difficult to believe that they had known each other only for a few days. Somehow, a familiarity was growing between them that Therese had felt only with very few people in her life – though the Countess might feel a lot different about that. Surely she didn’t feel the same connection to Therese as Therese felt to her. Being close to the Countess was like the first day of spring in the year, or like the first green in the trees after a long hibernation. In a way, the world seemed more joyful and more intense in her presence, and every room felt empty and grey as soon as she had left it.

Therese was glad that the Countess couldn’t read her thoughts. She only was here to do something good for another human being and in a few weeks, she wouldn’t remember Therese anymore. As soon as the painting was finished, their paths would separate again and only the picture in the gallery would prove that they had ever met.

“Which dose did your sister’s doctor prescribe?” the Countess asked, opening the small, brown bottle that they had purchased at the pharmacist.

“Two spoonfuls, three times a day.” Therese had started to cut the onions and occasionally had to wipe her eyes with her sleeve.

“And when did her doctor see her last?”

“Several weeks ago, I guess.” Therese pushed the pile with the onions in the Countess’s direction, relieved that she had managed the unpleasant task. “If the date is important, I will ask my mother.”

The Countess hesitated. “I’m not a doctor, as you know,“ she said slowly. “But I am guessing that your sister was in a much better condition when he last saw her. Considering how she is doing now, I’m afraid the dose might be too high.” She put Therese’s onions in an empty glass, adding a spoonful of honey and some water. “The medicine her doctor prescribed her has some unpleasant side effects and I’m afraid she might be too weak for that.”

Therese couldn’t say why she trusted the Countess more than Beth’s doctor, but she didn’t question her instincts. “What dose would you recommend, my lady?”

“I would start with one spoonful three times a day and double the dose after a week.” The Countess poured part of the boiling brew on the stove into a cup and handed it to Therese. “Take this to your sister. She needs to drink the teas in small gulps as long as it’s hot.”

Therese wrapped a cloth around her hand before she took the hot cup and carried it to Beth’s room. “Is she awake?” she whispered, sitting down next to her mother on the edge of the bed. “The Countess said Beth should slowly drink the tea while it’s still hot.”

“Yes, she’s awake.” Therese’s mother bent down to Beth. “I’m going to help you with the drinking, my angel,” she whispered when Therese brought the hot cup to Beth’s mouth. The girl was too weak to answer, but the small movements of her throat indicated that she was actually drinking.

Therese smiled at her mother who had tears in her eyes. “Everything will be fine, mother,” she whispered. “You will see.”

Beth tried really hard to drink a few more sips, even if in tiny doses, but eventually she had to lean back again, totally exhausted by the task. Therese cast a glance into the cup, noticing that Beth had almost drank half of the tea. Not bad for the beginning.

“What’s going on with the Countess, Therese?” Mrs. Belivet asked, gently covering Beth’s shoulders with the blanket. “Why is she here? And why did she lend you money?”

Therese tugged at the end of the blanket, searching for an appropriate response. What was she supposed to say to her mother? She couldn’t deny that the situation was indeed strange, and she couldn’t blame her mother for being suspicious. “I think she felt some compassion and wanted to help.”

“And you are sure she hasn’t any ulterior motives?”

“Ulterior motives? What do you mean?” Therese blushed when she met her mother’s concerned gaze.

“You know exactly what I mean.” Mrs. Belivet shook her head about Therese’s uncomprehending expression. “Don’t you see how she looks at you when she thinks you’re not looking?”

Before Therese could respond, there was a knock on the door and the Countess walked into the room. In her left hand was the smaller one of the two bottles, and in her right hand the glass with the onion juice. “The juice needs to steep until tomorrow morning, but you should already put it next to your daughter’s bed,” she said quietly to Mrs. Belivet, handing her the glass. “The evaporation of the onion has a calming effect on the airways."

Mrs. Belivet took the glass from the Countess and put it on the small table next to Beth’s bed. “You have to take your medicine now,” she said quietly to Beth, stroking her sticky hair. “Do you think you can manage that?”

Beth startled at the touch and whispered something nobody could understand. “Terry,” she repeated a bit louder when everybody looked at her questioningly.

“Oh, I see." Mrs. Belivet stood up, making space for Therese. “She wants you to do that, Theodore.” She patted Therese’s shoulder before moving next to the Countess.

Therese took the bottle from the Countess, cursing mutely when she realized that her hands were trembling. She had difficulties keeping the spoon still and turned her back to the Countess. What had her mother just said? She thought perhaps the Countess was interested in her? Therese poured a bit of the bad-smelling liquid onto the spoon, sighing when part of it dropped on the floor. Whatever it was that her mother suspected, she had to be wrong. Carolyn Aird was a goddess, and who was she? Nothing but an insignificant artist who tried to paint a better portrait than his predecessors. And to top it all off, a fraudster.

Therese tried to pull herself together when she met her mother’s questioning gaze. With trembling hands, she raised the spoon to Beth’s lips. “I bet it tastes awful,” she warned her little sister. The smell alone could wake the dead. “I’ll give you some tea right afterwards.”

Beth obediently opened her mouth, immediately grimacing when she swallowed the remedy. Before she could spit it out again, Therese poured the tea down her throat and Beth sank back in her cushions, totally exhausted.

”It might take a few days until she feels better,” the Countess told Mrs. Belivet. “Don’t lose your courage.”

”We won’t.” Mrs. Belivet took a bow and kissed the Countess’s hand. “Lady Aird, I can’t thank you enough for your kindness. I will never forget this in my lifetime.”

“You’re very welcome,“ the Countess said, smiling as she turned to Therese. “I assume you want to have a moment alone with your family, Mr. Belivet. I’m going to wait outside in the coach.”

Therese nodded silently, too overwhelmed to say anything. All she could do was to take her mother in her arms, who started to cry the moment the Countess had left the room. “Beth will get well again soon,” Therese whispered, stroking her mother’s back. “It will just take take a while.”

Suddenly they heard voices from the corridor and shortly afterwards Eda and Martha burst into the room. “Did you see the coach outside?”

“What’s going on, Mom?” they asked at the same time and stopped in their tracks when they noticed Therese.

“Terry!” Martha ran over to Therese and tugged on her clothes. “What’s going on, Terry? Why are you dressed like that?”

“Did something happen?” Eda looked at her mother worriedly.

“Therese and the Countess of Essex just brought Beth her medicine.” Mrs. Belivet wiped the last tears from her face. “Now there’s finally hope for your little sister.”

“Really?” The sisters hugged Therese so firmly that she had to laugh. “That’s like a miracle, Terry!”

“I’m afraid I have to leave again,” Therese said with regret. “The Countess is waiting outside and I just want to tell mother about the preparation of the remedies that we brought here. Then I have to leave.”

“You’re traveling in that coach?"“ Eda whistled. “With the Countess?” She bowed before Therese in awe.

“Tell us,” Martha urged her. “How is it to travel in a coach?”

“Less cold.” Therese smiled at the enthusiasm of her sisters, but she didn’t feel like talking about the coach ride with the Countess. This trip should be hers alone and she would remember it all her life.

The sisters broached the subject again a few times, but when Therese didn’t say anything, they gave up. Therese told her mother all she needed to know about the preparation and intake of the remedies and then left her parents’ home, accompanied by Eda and Martha. Her sisters curtseyed politely in front the Countess, thanking her for her generosity. “Don’t stay away too long, Terry!” they shouted when the coach started to move again.

“Terry is an unusual nickname,” the Countess remarked, watching Therese lean back on the bench of the coach.

“People have always called me that,” Therese explained curtly. “I can’t really thank you enough, my lady.” She changed the topic. “I really hope you and your husband will like the portrait.”

“I’m sure we will.” The Countess slipped off her gloves. “The Earl isn’t as strict as people may say.”

Slowly, they jogged through Sudbury. It was getting cooler outside, but in the boot it was still so warm that the Countess tried to take off her coat – not a simple task in a narrow coach boot. Therese helped her as much as she could and then put the coat on the opposite bench. “Much better.” The Countess smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Belivet."“

“You’re welcome, my lady.” Therese returned her smile.

“Even if my husband isn’t satisfied with the portrait – which I doubt …” The Countess briefly put her hand on Therese’s knee. “I won’t regret that I met you."

Therese swallowed, looking at the spot where the Countess’s hand had just been. She could still feel the warmth of her fingers. Without meaning to, she began to think of her mother’s words. It actually had happened a few times that women had showed interest in Therese. But the Countess? Why should somebody like her, who lived in the best circles, be interested in an ordinary painter? Even though Carolyn Aird’s marriage didn’t seem to be happy, she didn’t look so desperate that she would hit on any man coming around.

Therese dared a careful side glance at the Countess, who was sitting relaxed on the bench, her eyes closed. The light of the evening sun fell through the window on her face, making it even more beautiful. Therese could have looked at her for hours, the high cheekbones, the golden hair, the delicate features – all of this was so familiar to her by now, as if she’d known the Countess for years.

Therese decided to close her eyes for a little while, too. So she took off her hat, put it next to the Countess’s coat, and made herself comfortable. The coach passed meadows and fields and Therese thought of Beth and her sisters and of the portrait she would have to finish soon. In only a few weeks she would say good-bye to the Countess and never see her again. Unless, of course, the Countess would refer to Therese’s offer to paint her and her daughter. That wasn’t really likely, though, since the Earl obviously didn’t like the idea.

She wished she could do something to see the Countess again, but she wasn’t in the position to do that, nor to make any suggestions. However, if the Countess wanted to see her again, it would be easy for her to make that happen. After all, she had just told Therese that she was glad to have met her, hadn’t she?

How would it be, if the Countess was actually interested in her? And not only interested, but more than that? What if her mother was right? Would the Countess demand that Therese return her favor? Maybe claim nearness? Maybe even try to kiss her? Therese felt hot and cold at the thought and the idea to be allowed to touch that soft skin again took her breath away. She imagined the Countess bending down to her, her face coming very close to her own. So close that …

Therese opened her eyes wide as if the Countess had really touched her. What on earth was wrong with her? The Countess was a woman. So why did she feel what she felt? It almost seemed as if she wanted the Countess to touch her. She wasn’t a man, though, even though she pretended to be one. Why was she feeling this way?

Therese took a deep breath and caught a glimpse of the Countess’s hands, laying peacefully in her lap. Though they were only partly visible, Therese knew exactly what they looked like. She knew every wrinkle, every freckle, and she already knew which color blend she would use to paint them. Therese’s gaze wandered from the elegant dress to the chest that was slowly rising and falling and from there, to the golden necklace on the cleavage, to the graceful neck and to the sensitive, red lips.

Therese knew that it was wrong what she did, but she couldn’t stop looking. The impulse to touch the soft cheek was so strong that Therese’s hands started to shake. A hot redness flushed her face and the ground beneath her began to sway. At that moment, the Countess opened her eyes and their eyes met.

Therese registered the surprise in the blue eyes, then hesitation and insecurity. And then something else she couldn’t name. But something inside of her instinctively reacted to it and she leaned closer towards the Countess. It was as if something else inside of her took control, something that didn’t worry about any conventions and didn’t care about consequences.

Her head was fuzzy and the only thing sinking in was the almost inaudible sigh of the Countess when their lips met. Then there was only an indefinable noise in Therese’s ears and a sea of colors exploded before her closed eyes. The sweet smell of the perfume mingled with Carolyn Aird’s very own scent and Therese’s mouth searched again for the Countess’s soft lips, until she opened up to her and the only thing existing in Therese’s world was Carolyn Aird. An unknown animal inside of Therese pressed forward, wanted more, much more, until both of them were out of breath and Therese leaned her forehead against the Countess’s.

Everything in Therese seemed to spin and her heart was racing when the Countess put her warm hands on each side of Therese’s face. A voice warned her that it was wrong what they did. It was a lie, it was fraud, and it was a sin. But she couldn’t stop, and against all reason she let herself fall. She kissed the Countess’s neck, her collarbone, and again and again her lips with urgency, as if this was the last thing she would ever do on this earth.

Therese’s fingers caressed her blonde hair, ran through the silky strands while the Countess’s right hand disappeared under her shirt … – no! As if being struck by lightning, Therese pulled away. But it was too late. With a start, the Countess withdrew her hand, backing away. “Oh my God …”

“I … I’m so sorry," Therese whispered. She suddenly felt sick and wished the earth would swallow her whole. “My lady, I …”

“You … you are not … a man …” The Countess’s voice was shaking. “Oh my God,” she repeated, covering her eyes with her hand. Then she turned her back to Therese and looked out the window as if she wasn’t there. But Therese could see her chest rising and falling as if she had just run a mile.

“I … I’d better leave you alone,” Therese murmured and gave the coachman a sign. The Countess turned around in confusion when Therese left the coach without another word, but didn’t do anything to hold her back.

In shock, Therese saw the coach start to move again, leaving her behind. What on earth had gotten into her? Was she possessed by the devil? Had he cast a spell on her? How could it have happened that she had completely lost control over herself?

The sweat dripped off Therese’s forehead when she set off for London on foot. After a while, she couldn’t feel her feet anymore and the constant walking helped her clear her head. Maybe she had been pretending to be a man for too long? Maybe the role had rubbed off on her? But in that case she would have noticed something sooner. She had pretended to be a man for more than seven years and she had never even remotely felt something like this.

Maybe she had accidentally swallowed something bad at the old pharmacist’s house? Some potion that made people unpredictable and made her do strange things? The truth of the matter was that Therese knew all too well she hadn’t touched anything at George’s place. And the more she thought about it, the more obvious it became that her strange state had to do solely with Carolyn Aird.

It had gotten dark by now and the air had gotten cooler immediately. The Essex House couldn’t be far away anymore, but with every step Therese questioned her decision more and more. Wouldn’t it be wiser to turn around and ride back to Sudbury? What would happen if the Countess betrayed her secret? It wouldn’t only mean the end of Theodor Belivet’s carrier, but she would probably spend the rest of her life in the dungeon – if she was lucky. If she wasn’t, she would be sentenced to the stake.

The thought made a shiver run down Therese’s spine. Would the Countess betray her? Therese tried to imagine how she would feel when a person, who she had trusted, suddenly turned out to be nothing but an impostor. Never in her life would she forget the horrified look in the Countess’s eyes. She still could hear her shocked words in her head. Oh my God … Oh my God …

Maybe there was some kind of monster inside of her and she just hadn’t known it before? Maybe it was right to imprison her? But deep inside, Therese knew she wasn’t a monster. The problem was, however, that the rest of the world would see that differently.

On the other hand, the Earl was waiting for the portrait of his wife. He trusted Therese not to fail him and it wasn’t like her to break a contract. In that case, the Earl only had a different reason to throw her into the dungeon.

No matter how she looked at it, the outcome was always a disaster. How strange it was that only a few hours ago she had felt so happy like never before in her life. For the first time, she’d had hope that Beth would be well again. And she would never forget the moment in the kitchen when she had worked with the Countess side by side.

Therese wiped the tears from her face, urging herself forward. The way through the darkness was becoming increasingly difficult and with every step, more fear crept up her spine. But it was useless to run away. There was still some hope that Therese could finish her work and pay off her debts. And after that she would go far away. Maybe the commission in Bavaria was still available.

Finally, Therese arrived at the Strand and she was able to see the still illuminated Essex House. She pulled her hat deep down her face when she set foot on the Airds’ estate. “I’m sorry for the lateness,” she muttered when the servant Oliver opened the door. Luckily, the dust on her clothing was hardly visible in the candlelight.

Judging by the busy staff, the Airds hadn’t gone to bed yet and Therese sneaked past the servant to her chamber. Without a sound, she closed the door behind her and exhaustedly fell on her bed. The fact that she had to face the Countess again tomorrow made her feel sick and dizzy. Her fate was completely in the Countess’s hands and if Lady Aird decided to make her life miserable from now on, she held all the aces.

Exhausted, Therese pulled off her boots and blew out the candle next to the bed. She’d better keep her clothes on tonight, just in case she were to be arrested. Therese curled up like a ball and closed her burning eyelids. She was too exhausted to even cry. Thinking that this might be her last night of freedom, she eventually fell asleep.

_________________
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BeitragVerfasst: Sa 22. Jul 2017, 18:00 
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Chapter 5



Every bone hurt in Therese’s body when she woke up the next morning. It took her a while to realize that nobody had come to get her and she was tempted to stay in bed the entire day. But she knew that this wouldn’t change anything, so she braced herself up and got out of bed to wash herself. Her feet hurt with every step and Therese winced in pain as she walked to the washing bowl.

She gasped for air when she poured a jug of cold water onto her head to get rid of the dust of the streets. At least the cold shock distracted her from her dark musings. She had dreamt of the Countess the entire night, of the expression in her eyes when she had realized Therese’s deception. There was no way to avoid meeting her today and Therese’s body tensed at the thought. The lump in her throat grew alarmingly and her stomach felt as if she had swallowed a boulder.

Therese splashed some cold water on her face to dispel the memory of the kisses in the coach. She still felt Carolyn Aird’s lips on her skin, smelled the scent of her hair, as if the Countess was right here in the room. The feeling of her soft lips on her own had been the most blissful, the most overwhelming sensation she had ever experienced in her life. The memory made her center throb again and she had no idea how to deal with all this. There was still an urgent need in her body, a pull towards the Countess, and at the same time it was the last thing she wanted to do. She was nothing but an imposter for the Countess, somebody who had insinuated herself into her confidence by a lie.

How was the Countess doing right now? She was probably still angry and Therese couldn’t blame her for it. There was nothing she could say in her defense. When she heard a knock at the door, her knees turned into jelly immediately and she had to support herself on the back of the chair. Was it time? Would be she arrested now? “Come in,” she said with a constrained voice and promptly the servant Oliver looked through the door crack.

“Good morning, Mr. Belivet,” he said in a formal tone. “The Countess asks you to meet her in the music hall.”

The Countess wanted to see her? Therese choked on her response. At this time of day? What did she want? But whatever it was, Therese decided she shouldn’t made the Countess even angrier than she already was, and so she dropped everything to get to the music room as soon as possible. Her hair was still damp as she hesitantly entered the cool room.

The place looked as always with the paintings on the ceiling, the patterned windows and beautiful harpsichord in the middle – it felt so strange that the world was just moving on, as if nothing had happened. Therese stopped in her tracks when she spotted the Countess at the window.

“My lady …” Therese went silent as her voice failed her. The Countess looked tired and exhausted, but her posture still radiated grace and pride. The hair that Therese had kissed just yesterday glowed in the light of the morning sun and Therese tried to swallow the lump in her throat, completely overwhelmed. How cruel fate was that it made her feel something that would never come to fulfillment.

The Countess sat down on the chair next to the table without another word. Did she expect Therese to continue her work? Only now did Therese realize that she was wearing the blue dress for the sessions. She tried in vain to guess the Countess’s thoughts, but the expression in her blue eyes was cool and remote. Eventually, Therese started setting up her easel before the Countess changed her mind. With trembling hands, she reached for her palette and began to work.

It was completely quiet in the room while Therese drew line after line without looking at the Countess. Every now and then, she had to wipe the tears from her eyes with her sleeve, since she couldn’t see the canvas anymore, but at least her hand gradually became calmer. She could have painted the Countess with closed eyes by now. Only yesterday Therese had kissed that petite rise of her collarbone and she knew exactly how to put it on the canvas. The shape of her chin, the light eyebrows, the graceful nose – none of it needed any validation by Therese and she had never been so grateful for her excellent visual memory.

The Countess didn’t make a single move during the session, but Therese felt her eyes constantly watching her. Did she intend to let Therese finish the portrait, before she would give the order to imprison her? Why couldn’t she at least talk about the weather? It was unusually warm for the end of February, so this would certainly be an issue to talk about. Maybe the Countess despised Therese so much that she wasn’t even worth a sentence.

Notwithstanding the last events, the painting thrived and blossomed under Therese’s hands. She already knew that this would become one of the most beautiful portraits she had ever done – maybe even the most beautiful. She was still busy with the background in the first place, but before her inner eye the picture was long finished. The main colors would be the blue of the dress, the red of the tablecloth, where Therese had set the violin, and the gold from the harpsichord. Every color would tell the viewer something about the person in the painting. The Blue told them about the deep yearning that Therese had immediately sensed in Carolyn Aird, the Red symbolized restrained passion, and the Gold represented the grace and dignity the Countess radiated at any time.

To Therese’s surprise, the Countess hadn’t asked to see the portrait yet. Usually the models lost their patience sooner or later and they demanded to see the painting – mostly with unpleasant consequences, since it was almost impossible to judge an oil painting before it was really finished. Nobody was able to guess Therese’s vision at the several interphases of the process and maybe the Countess knew about the characteristic of oil paintings.

Eventually, the Countess started stirring her feet and Therese took it as a sign to end the session. Without looking up, she put her tools aside and carried the easel to a corner of the room. With practiced moves, she removed all traces of the session and took her utensils to clean them in her chamber. “My lady.” Therese bowed politely before moving to the door.

“Therese?”

Therese almost fell over her own feet when she heard the Countess saying her real name. “My lady?”

“Have you eaten anything today?”

Therese shook her head. Even if somebody had brought her something, she wouldn’t have been able to eat a thing.

“I will send somebody to your chamber.” The Countess almost sounded normal, but the subtle trembling of her voice didn’t escape Therese. “Take a rest, Therese. You look pale today.”

Therese nodded, confused. Although the idea of food made her sick to her stomach, she would do well to not object to the Countess. With another bow, she took her leave and went to her chamber.

Why didn’t she feel relieved that the Countess had eventually tried to have a normal conversation with her? All she could feel was a deep, profound sadness. She imagined dropping dead, so that she could take the still fresh memory of their kiss to her grave. No actual event would be able to overlay it and maybe she would be spared a lot.

A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts, but before she could respond, the door already opened. “Did I come at a bad time?” Therese spun around when she heard the voice of Carolyn Aird, who carried a round tray with some bread and fruits in both of her hands.

“No, not all. Please, come in, my lady.” Therese hastily wiped her dirty hands in a cloth. “What can I do for you?”

Instead of answering her question, the Countess put the tray on the small table and sat down on the edge of Therese’s bed. “You should try this fruit.” She pointed at a bowl with brown, sticky fruits in it. “A guest of my husband brought them from the Middle East. They are very sweet and utterly substantial.”

Therese, who had stood up when the Countess had walked in, took a seat on her chair again, glancing carefully at the Countess. Why on earth was she here? What did she want? Reluctantly, Therese reached for said bowl and tasted one of the dates. It was indeed surprisingly aromatic. “These dates are superb, my lady,” Therese praised, handing the bowl to the Countess. “Would you like one as well?”

To her surprise, the Countess actually reached for the bowl. “You know dates?”

“My work entails a lot of traveling.” Therese took two more fruits when she noticed that, against her expectation, it felt good to have something in her stomach again. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast on the previous day. “Three years ago, I was in …”

“Why don’t you want to be a woman?” the Countess interrupted her.

Therese went silent. So that was the reason for the Countess’s visit. “Have you ever heard of a female portrait painter, my lady?” she asked back.

“No.“ The Countess shook her head. “But why don’t you do something different? Your father surely could use every hand at the weaving mill.”

“My father is dead.” Therese thought of the day when she had received her mother’s letter with the death notice. It still hurt to talk about it. “My mother and my sister are running the weaving mill on their own.”

“I’m sorry.” The Countess crossed her legs and looked at Therese attentively. “And why don’t you help them?” The accusation in her voice was unmistakable.

“I was 14 years old when my youngest sister Beth was born,“ Therese explained. “On my fifteenth birthday, my parents told me they wouldn’t be able to feed five children. Since I was the oldest one, my father had gotten a job for me. I think he had tried to find something for some time by then, but the only job he could find was in Utrecht, where I was supposed to assist a court painter.”

Therese had pondered so often how it would feel to tell somebody the truth about herself, but now that she was actually saying it aloud, it just felt foreign and empty, as if she was telling somebody else’s story. “Of course, I couldn’t assist him as a girl,” she continued.

“So you left everything behind and moved to the Netherlands as a young man?“ The Countess was perceptibly shocked about Therese’s explanation. “Have you never missed, being a …” She went silent in the middle of the sentence and glanced at the blanket.

“Missed what, my lady?” For the first time, Therese dared looking at the Countess directly and was surprised how nervous she seemed to be.

”I mean …” The Countess hesitated. “… being a woman?“

Therese shook her head. “Not that much. Before, I had never given it a thought how much more liberties men have. All of a sudden, I was allowed to do anything I want. So I discovered my passion for painting and for traveling.”

The Countess nodded, obviously deeply in thought, and Therese watched her fingers running absentmindedly over the blanket. One fold after the other smoothened under her soft fingertips and Therese wished she could be this blanket. Nothing but an object under the hands of the Countess instead of an impostor who was supposed to be pilloried.

“It became apparent that I had a certain talent for painting,” Therese continued quietly. “Pieter van Goyen advocated for me and supported me a lot. Eventually, I was able to make a living from it, and in addition, I could support my family. Weaving mills don’t make enough money these days. All weavers suffer from it.”

“Did you …” The Countess kept her gaze on the blanket. “Did you … live entirely as a man?”

Therese blushed furiously. She couldn’t believe the Countess was asking her this. “No … no, I’ve never …” Therese struggled for words. “I don’t know what …“

The Countess abruptly stood up from Therese’s bed. “You need to be careful, Therese,“ she said, quickly heading for the door. “Otherwise you will end up in the dungeon sooner or later.”

Therese jumped up from her chair and stepped in front the Countess. Even if she seemed to be in a real hurry all of a sudden, Therese needed to take the chance to apologize. The unsaid words pressed on her shoulders like heavy weights and maybe she would never have this chance again. “My lady … my behavior was absolutely inexcusable … and I formally apologize …” Therese was talking quicker and quicker, afraid the Countess would be leaving her chamber without hearing what she needed to say. “I don’t … I wasn’t myself, I …”

“You should rest today,” the Countess interrupted her harshly. “Eat more of the dates and then you should get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow in the music room.”

“Yes, my lady.” Therese nodded in defeat. “Will you tell the Earl about me?” she asked when the Countess was almost out of the door.

The Countess turned around once again, her hand on the door knob. She was about to say something but then seemed to decide against it. The door closed in front of Therese’s face without her getting an answer.

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Chapter 6



After the conversation with the Countess, Therese had slept almost the entire rest of the day. Although their talk had confused her, it had also calmed her a bit, because she now had a reason to hope the Countess would keep her secret. She seemed to have understood that Therese wasn’t a chronic liar and that she hadn’t tried to use the Countess’s kindness at any point.

So when Therese entered the music room the next morning, she felt a lot better than the previous day. As usual, the Countess wasn’t there yet and Therese quickly started to prepare the session. It always took some time to put all the things in the right spot. Therese had just taken the violin out of its case when she heard a knocking at the door. Instantly, she felt her pulse quicken, but it was only Sarah who handed her a letter from her mother.

Maybe some news about Beth? Hopefully nothing bad! Therese unfolded the letter impatiently, walking to the window to get more light. Hastily, she scanned the lines and took a deep breath when she read that Beth’s condition hadn’t gotten worse. It hadn’t gotten better either, but the Countess had predicted that it might take a while. At least the mood at home seemed to be a lot better than before. Everybody was full of hope and they diligently prepared the remedies the Countess had recommended. It feels so good to be able to do something , Therese’s mother wrote. I don’t feel so helpless anymore.

The door opened again and Therese was startled when the Earl entered the room. Had the Countess told him something? Therese hid her sweaty hands behind her back, taking a deep bow. “Good morning, my lord,” she said, after he had greeted her with a nod.

“Have you seen my wife?” The Earl looked so serious that Therese thought her last hour had finally come.

“No, my lord,” she responded bravely. “I haven’t seen her today.”

The Earl walked across the room towards Therese, but instead of grabbing her, he looked over her shoulder at the painting on her easel. “Are you making some progress, Mr. Belivet?”

“Yes, my lord, I am.” Therese stepped aside, so that the Earl could have a closer look at the portrait. How she hated it when people looked at an unfinished painting of hers. Yet, the Earl surprised Therese again.

“Not bad,” he muttered. “Your work is already better than the ones of your predecessors.”

Therese tried to hide her relief. Whatever happened, at least she would finish this commission with some dignity. The Earl voiced some change requests that Therese complied with straightaway. She was still busy with the corrections when the Countess stepped through the door.

“Oh, Harold,” she said with surprise, as she spotted her husband. “Is everything all right?”

“No, it’s not.” The Earl pulled out a letter from under his doublet and handed it to his wife. “There are riots in Scotland again. Hence, the King asked me to go to Edinburgh.”

“You need to leave?” The Countess grabbed his hand. “How long will you be away?”

“It won’t take long, I hope.” The Earl kissed the Countess’s cheek. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time for the meeting with the lords.”

Therese discreetly looked at her feet so as not to disturb the intimate moment between husband and wife, but inwardly she fought back her tears. She hated the Earl for having the right to kiss the Countess, while she hadn’t. Just because he was a man and a lord, he could do things she wasn’t even allowed to think about.

“I hope so,” Therese heard the Countess say. “Take good care of yourself, Harold,” she said softly. “We need you here.”

“Of course, my darling.” The Earl embraced her, kissing her on the lips. “You better not disappoint me, Mr. Belivet,” he told Therese, heading for the door. “I won’t have enough time to look for another painter.”

“I’ll do my very best, my lord.” Therese took a bow.

“I didn’t expect anything less.”

The Earl’s steps still echoed in the corridor as the Countess sat down on the chair at the window. “Shall we begin?” she asked when Therese didn’t move.

“Yes, of course, my lady.” Therese pulled herself together and went to her easel. Today she would need to work on the face – the area she had avoided most so far. But since she only had a few days left, there was no way around it.

How could she paint those full lips without remembering how it had felt to kiss them? How could she paint the blue eyes without remembering how they had looked at her? And how could she paint the chin, the forehead, the cheeks, without wishing to be allowed to touch them again?

“Is anything wrong?”

Therese raised her head in embarrassment. Of course, the Countess had noticed her distraction. “No, my lady.”

“What are you working on?”

“Well, I …” Therese blushed furiously. For a quick moment, she thought about lying to the Countess, but it would be useless. The Countess would see right through her anyway. “On your mouth, my lady.”

“Oh …” Was it just Therese’s imagination or did the Countess’s cheeks pink a little bit? Without doubt, they were thinking of the same thing. “May I see the painting?”

“Of course, my lady.” Therese suppressed a sigh. “But I have to warn you. The portrait will still change a lot.”

“I know.” The Countess smiled, rising from her chair. There it was again, the light whiff of mockery that Therese had already met at their first encounter. “As you know, I’m not posing for a portrait for the first time.”

“Yes, I know, my lady. I’m sorry.” For the second time this day, Therese stepped aside and strangely enough, she was even more nervous than before. The Earl’s judgment weighed a lot more, but the idea that Carolyn Aird would reject the way Therese saw her, or might even be disgusted by her portrait, made Therese’s chest contract painfully. Anxiously, her eyes followed the Countess bending closer to the picture.

“You don’t do me justice, Therese,” the Countess said quietly without looking up from the painting. “I’m not that beautiful.”

“On the contrary, my lady. You’re even more beautiful,” escaped Therese’s lips. “I indeed don’t do you justice.”

The Countess frowned, shaking her head. “You can’t be serious.”

“Of course I am.” Therese bravely looked into the blue-grey eyes. “How can you not see that, my lady?”

For the first time, Therese saw the Countess truly blush. “You certainly know how to flatter a woman.”

Therese repressed her impulse to object. It pained her that Carolyn Aird obviously had no idea how beautiful she was. But maybe living with a man who wasn’t interested in much else than politics and warfare did that to you. Therese was sure she would never get tired of telling the Countess how overwhelming and amazing she was if she shared her life with her.

“Let’s continue,” the Countess suggested. Talking about herself obviously made her feel uncomfortable.

“Yes, my lady.” Therese hastened to get back to her easel and the Countess went to her chair as well. Unprompted, she adopted the correct pose, but something seemed to distract her.

“Therese?” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, my lady?”

“Would you show me how you look as a woman?”

“Excuse me?” Therese was convinced she hadn’t heard correctly, but the expression on the Countess’s face indicated that this wasn’t the case. “Why?”

“Because I want to know who you really are.” The genuine interest in the Countess’s eyes proved that she was indeed serious.

But how was Therese supposed to show her who she truly was, when she didn’t even know it herself?

“Only if that’s all right with you, of course ...” the Countess added when she noticed Therese’s hesitation. Almost nervously, she smoothened the hem of her dress, waiting for Therese’s answer.

The thought of wearing a dress in the presence of another person provoked a strange fear in Therese. She couldn’t say why, but it made her feel uncomfortable. Surely, her neighbors in Sudbury knew her only in a dress, but she was somebody else there. “As you wish, my lady,” Therese heard herself say.

“Very well.” The Countess smiled. “Louise will knock at your door after dinner.”

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Chapter 7



Therese sat in her chamber and stared absentmindedly at the potatoes on her plate. Why for God’s sake had she agreed to the Countess’s request? Her male clothing had become a second skin for her and the idea to exchange them with a dress felt foreign and disturbing. Well, she had always worn Eda’s dresses in Sudbury, but she was the weaver’s daughter there. The person she had been when she had left Sudbury long ago didn’t exist anymore. And the person she was today didn’t wear dresses, even if she had never felt like a man. Theodore Belivet didn’t have much in common with the young girl who had taken care of her younger sisters in the past.

Why did the Countess want to know how she looked as a woman? Was it pure curiosity? Or genuine interest? Or maybe a trap? No, it couldn’t be that. Therese was now sure that she could trust the Countess.

The maid’s knocking jolted Therese out of her musings. “Come in!” she shouted a little too loud and cursed when her knee bumped against a table leg.

Louise’s brown, curly hair appeared in the door. “The Countess wishes to see you, Mr. Belivet.”

Therese cast a quick glance in the mirror, adjusted her garment one last time, and then there was no way back.

Louise led Therese upstairs through a long corridor with at least twenty doors. Their steps echoed through the house when they turned into the west wing. “Here we are,” Louise announced, stopping in front of a door that didn’t look any different from all the others. “You have to knock distinctly,” she explained before she discreetly removed herself.

Therese took a deep breath and knocked on the dark wood. Almost immediately, she heard the Countess’s response and cautiously opened the door.

“Don’t be shy, Mr. Belivet.” The Countess put her stitching aside and waved Therese in. “Come in.”

Therese’s feet felt as if she walked on a swaying pendant bridge, but eventually she stood in front of the Countess. Carolyn Aird had changed clothes and now wore a red, low-cut dress with a round lace collar and wide, ruffled sleeves and Therese instantly regretted that she hadn’t painted her in this gown. She looked so breathtaking that Therese forgot to reciprocate the Countess’s greeting.

Since Therese didn’t move, the Countess took her hand and guided her to a room located behind another door. The Countess’s hand was warm and comforting and made Therese’s fear more bearable. This room seemed to be made for receiving visitors, considering the elegant group of chairs surrounding a round table, and several cabinets, partly with shelves. Some of the shelves were filled with tableware, mugs and glasses, others with books and some decorative objects like carved animals and vases. The fireplace in the corner radiated comfortable warmth and was probably the reason that the Countess’s cheeks were lightly pink.

“I receive my guests here,” the Countess explained. “And sometimes Nerinda plays with her toys in this room. She likes to be around me.”

Therese looked at the carved horse on one of the shelves which certainly belonged to Nerinda. “I hope your daughter is doing well, my lady?” Therese asked, looking closer at the toy. Whoever had made it knew his craft well.

“Yes, she’s down at the stable and helps to feed the horses.” The Countess invited Therese to take a seat in one of the chairs. “If she knew about your visit, she would probably come up here straightaway,” she added with a smile. “She mentions you a lot, Therese. Maybe you could take a walk with her sometime?”

“It would be a pleasure, my lady.” Therese had locked the young girl into her heart since they had first met. It was hard to see the little girl’s loneliness, so if there was something Therese could do about that, she definitely would. “I could take a walk with her along the Thames, if that’s all right with you.”

“I’m sure she would love that.” The eyes of the Countess suddenly looked brighter and livelier, as always when she was talking about her daughter. She poured some tea into two cups and handed one to Therese before she sat down in a chair as well.

Therese looked around, sipping her tea, and suppressed a smile when she recognized Carolyn Aird in the furniture and in every single little object. It felt good to be completely surrounded by her belongings, like a warming blanket in which Therese would have loved to hide.

“I’ve borrowed some clothes for you,” the Countess explained, taking a sip from her cup. “A relative of mine is your size, more or less.”

Promptly, Therese’s nervousness came back and she frantically searched for a new topic to distract the Countess from her plan. But before she could say anything, the Countess rose from her chair and disappeared into the room next door. Just a moment later, she came back again with a dark green gown.

Therese pressed herself against the back of the chair. The dress looked so expensive that she didn’t even dare to touch it.

“Try it on,” the Countess encouraged her. “The green color will suit you.”

Therese shook her head. “I can’t wear that, my lady. It’s too exquisite.”

“No it’s not.” With a nod, the Countess prompted Therese to rise and led her to the room where she had taken the dress from. “You can change here.”

Therese stopped dead in her tracks when she realized that she was standing in one of the Airds’ many bedrooms. Although the big bed in the middle of the room looked hardly used, the small make-up accessories and the hairbrush on the wooden chest indicated that the Countess did her morning toilette here every now and then. Even stronger than in the reception room, the air was filled with Carolyn Aird’s perfume and Therese decided there was no way she would change clothes here.

But the Countess took her arm, preventing her from turning around. “I’ll leave you for a while,” she said determinedly and left the room without another word.

With a sigh, Therese walked next to the bed and started to unbutton her jerkin. One piece after the other landed on the bed, until Therese was ready to slip into the dress. It was cluttered with small pearls and laces and Therese felt like the Queen of England with the gown snuggled around her petite body. It was slightly too wide at the waist, but otherwise it seemed to fit really well as far as Therese could tell.

Only now did she realize that the dress had strings on its back and that she wouldn’t be able to close it on her own. For a brief moment, she thought about taking off the dress again and just leave it be. But she didn’t want to disappoint the Countess and she was curious herself by now. “My lady?” she asked in such a small voice that the Countess couldn’t hear her. “My lady?” she repeated, a little louder this time.

“Doesn’t the dress fit?”

“I think it does, but I can’t tie the strings on my own.”

“Oh, of course.” Therese could hear the moving of chair legs, then the Countess appeared in the doorframe and stepped behind Therese. “Are you ready?”

Therese could only nod. Although the Countess hadn’t even touched her yet, Therese felt her nearness in her back like a warm sunray. Trembling, she closed her eyes as the Countess’s fingers touched her skin. She listened to the crackle of the fire in the other room, while the tiny hairs in her neck rose under the Countess’s touch.

Only when the Countess stepped back did Therese dare to breathe again. “That’s it,” the Countess said with a strangely foreign voice. Therese ran her fingers over the noble cloth of the dress and turned around to the Countess. Hopefully she didn’t look too ridiculous.

“You look beautiful, Therese.” The Countess led her to a mirror on the other side of the bed. “Have a look yourself.”

Therese saw a dainty young woman with delicate features and sea-green eyes. She looked like one of those women she had always envied in her childhood, when there had been a ball at court.

Without moving, Therese stood in front of the mirror and tears slowly filled her eyes. So this was the life she would never have. The person she would never be. And next to her the woman she would never have. Carolyn Aird stood right next to her and the frame of the mirror enwrapped them to one entity. As if it was supposed to be like that, as if they weren’t separated by a thousand worlds, but just one being.

“You have nothing of a man, Therese,” the Countess said quietly. “I don’t understand how you manage to deceive everybody.”

Therese had asked herself the same question many times. Apparently, people only saw what they expected. How would her life be, if she was living as a woman? Certainly, she wouldn’t have any of the things she had built up in her life by now. And yet, her own reflection now stood in front of her, as if it wanted to insist on its existence.

The Countess put her arm around Therese, pulling her closer. “Welcome, Therese Belivet,” she whispered and Therese had to press her hands against her face to stop the tears that were suddenly running down her cheeks. She had no idea where they came from, but she wasn’t able to push them back.

Confused, she let the Countess pull her wet face to her chest. How she wished she could kiss the soft skin there, or the small hollow of her throat. The sweet scent of the Countess’s perfume reached her nostrils, making her remember the last time she had been so close to her.

“You need some jewelry and make-up,” the Countess muttered, suddenly disengaging from Therese. “I’m going to find something.”

Therese looked after her dazedly. She knew her feet wouldn’t carry her much longer, so she went back to the other room and sat down at the table. Fortunately, the Countess was away for a while, which gave Therese some time to recover.

When the Countess came back she had jewelry, a box with powder and other make-up accessories in her hands. “Try these on.” She handed Therese a pearl necklace and two rings.

Obediently, Therese put the two rings on her fingers, one on each hand, and adjusted the pearl necklace around her neck. She was surprised what difference a necklace made. With the sparkling stones on her cleavage, she felt like a princess.

“As if it was made for you.” The Countess smiled. “Now the make-up.” She sat down next to Therese and opened the box with the powder in it. “Tonight you’re the model for a change,” she warned Therese. “So you have to sit still.”

Therese had no problem complying and let the Countess do her work. She enjoyed the procedure to the fullest and was glad the Countess couldn’t look into her head, or into her body.

“How did you know my real name, my lady?” Therese asked while the Countess was powdering her forehead.

“In hindsight, I remembered that your sister Beth had called you that.”

“I thought you hadn’t heard that …”

“Well, I was indeed convinced that I had heard incorrectly. But when you reacted to the name yesterday, I knew that your sister must have called you that.”

Therese frowned, wondering if she was getting too careless after all these years. “Why do you know so much about remedies, my lady?” She changed the topic. Therese had wanted to ask that question since their visit at the pharmacist.

“That’s quite a boring story,” the Countess answered, powdering Therese’s cheeks. “Medicine has always fascinated me and I lived at a doctor’s house for a while before I got married. He was also a pharmacist and taught me a lot about the preparation and effects of remedies.”

“Oh really?” It was quite unusual that a noble lady would live at the house of an ordinary pharmacist to learn from him. Something like that usually caused a lot of gossip and Therese was impressed that the Countess had done it nonetheless. “Was it George?”

“No, but a friend of his.”

“How long had you lived there, my lady?”

“About a year.”

“An entire year?” Therese made an abrupt move and part of the powder promptly landed on her eyebrows. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, blushing under the Countess’s reproving look. “What did your parents say about your idea?”

The Countess carefully brushed the powder from Therese’s eyebrows with her fingertips and closed the box again. “My mother was furious, but my father won out. He had taught me the love of medicine when I had been a child, so he understood my passion for it.” The Countess smiled pensively at the memory. “I had already been promised to Harold back then, but since he was still at war, I used the time to educate myself.”

“So you would be a doctor, if you decided to live as a man?” Therese smiled.

“Probably.” The Countess reached for a small round box with some red paste in it. “I did actually consider living as a man to be able to become a doctor.” She ran her index finger through the red paste. “As a man you can become a doctor, as a woman you can only become a witch.”

Therese shoved the Countess’s hand away, before it could touch her lips. Carolyn Aird had considered living as a man?

The Countess smiled when she noticed Therese’s shock. “I didn’t seriously think about it,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t have had the courage to give everything up. Besides, I always wanted a family. And children.”

An almost imperceptible shadow ran over the Countess’s features and Therese frowned. “You consider me very selfish, don’t you?”

The Countess shook her head. “You haven’t hurt anybody, Therese,” she said. “On the contrary, you’re able to support your family that way. I can’t find anything wrong in that.”

Therese suppressed a sigh, feeling a heavy burden falling from her shoulders. Finally she knew for sure that the Countess didn’t despise her for the way she lived her life, nor would she betray Therese’s secret to anybody.

“Stop moving,” the Countess admonished her. “This is for your lips.”

Therese obeyed this time, holding still, while the Countess applied the strange tasting paste on her lips. Could this be the same paste the Countess used for her own lips? Therese closed her eyes, imagining the paste would link both of their mouths in a magical way. “What kind of crème is that?” she asked when the Countess was finished.

“Just some pigments from scale insects.” The Countess smiled at Therese’s horrified expression.

“Scale insects?” Therese wrinkled her nose. “That’s disgusting.”

“Believe me, one gets used to it.” The Countess chuckled. “Even kissing is possible …” She went silent when she realized what she had just said and hurriedly closed the box again.

Therese was glad that the Countess was too busy to see her blush. “May I see myself, my lady?” she asked and rose after the Countess had given her permission.

Therese went to the other room again and walked back to the mirror. Who would she have married, if she had stayed in Sudbury? Maybe John, the swineherd? Or Matthew, the shoemaker? How many children would she have by now?

Therese heard steps behind her but couldn’t tear her eyes away from her reflection. “What do you think about the woman in the mirror, Miss Belivet?” The Countess walked next to her.

“I don’t know what to think.” Therese thoughtfully looked at her reflection. She was surprised that she actually liked the woman in the green dress. She looked pleasant, even pretty. She could be on her way to a ball or to an expensive dinner. But Therese knew she wasn’t this noble woman. Just as little as she was the young man she usually pretended to be. But who was she then?

“I think she’s adorable.” The Countess met Therese’s gaze in the mirror. “You see that, don’t you?”

Her words made Therese smile. “It seems you understand me now, my lady.”

“Why …” The Countess covered her mouth with her hand when she remembered their conversation only a few hours ago. “So we are even now, aren’t we?”

Therese choked on her playful response when the Countess raised her hand and softly brushed away a spot of red paste from her cheek. Without thinking, Therese turned her head, brushing her lips ever so slightly over the Countess’s palm. “I’m sorry, my lady,” she whispered when she realized what she had just done. “I can’t stop liking you …” She felt her face flushing. “I know I shouldn’t.”

The Countess didn’t respond but she let her hand linger where it was. “No, you shouldn’t,” she said eventually.

Therese fought back the tears. It was so wrong. Even if it felt more right than anything else in the world. And the more Therese got to know the Countess, the more right it felt.

“I like you even more … as a woman,” the Countess said quietly and something in her voice ripped Therese’s heart apart. She closed her eyes and felt the Countess’s hand withdraw. “Maybe …” The Countess cleared her throat. “Maybe you should get changed again, Therese. I’ve encroached on your time long enough.”

She left the room without looking at her and Therese remained back with a pounding heart. It took quite a while until she had removed all the make-up and taken off the green dress again. Cautiously, she placed all borrowed things on the bed and put on her jerkin again.

When she walked back into the other room, the Countess was talking to Oliver. There seemed to be a misunderstanding with the dinner on the next day. Oliver took a bow as he spotted Therese and then turned back to the Countess. Nothing in his face implied how surprised he had to be, seeing a man coming from Carolyn Aird’s bedroom.

Therese registered his discretion with a hint of jealousy. Was he just so good at his job, or had it happened before that the Countess invited male visitors to her bedroom? What did the staff know that Therese didn’t?

All of a sudden Therese was in a hurry to say good-bye to the Countess. She had to leave this room as quickly as possible or she would lose her mind. She agreed hastily to continue the sessions tomorrow and fled to the gardens.

Overnight, it had gotten bitterly cold again and small snowflakes fell on the ground and on Therese’s jerkin. But the walk between the snow-covered crocuses didn’t calm Therese as much as she had hoped. On the contrary. She couldn’t stop thinking about the Countess and her alleged lovers. Had the Countess had affairs in the past? Therese couldn’t deny that the Countess had kissed her back in the coach all too readily. How many paramours might she have had before that?

Shivering, Therese hunched her shoulders, leaning against the icy wind. There was not a single lead for a theory, and if she didn’t stop imagining things she would get crazy in this house sooner or later. The Countess hadn’t been the one who had started the kiss in the coach. Therese herself had made the first move.

However, the Countess hadn’t known at that time that Therese was a woman. Now she knew it and it made her earlier remark even more confusing. I like you even more … as a woman.” Not only the words themselves but also the way the Countess had said them made her heart beat faster. Was it possible that Therese wasn’t the only one in the world with such strange desires? Did the Countess feel something similar?

The thought that the Countess might reciprocate her affection blew up everything Therese had ever believed to know about love. Because what else should she call it? It met all criteria. But even if it was true, it remained impossible.

Therese wiped the snow from her coat when she went back into the house. All these new feelings scared her to death. Everything was so hopeless. And how could it be that she already missed the Countess? It hadn’t even been an hour ago that she had last seen her.

She had no idea what to do about that constant longing. She just knew that it wouldn’t go away. It was probably wise to leave one day earlier than she had originally planned. The farer away she was from this house, the better she would feel. But would she be able to take a pass on even one tiny little moment with Carolyn Aird?

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Chapter 8



Long after midnight, Therese still lay awake in her bed, staring into the darkness. The feeling of the silken cloth on her body was still there, the way it had snuggled against her skin, as if it had wanted to flatter her. And over and over she thought of the sight of the Countess and herself in the mirror. If she had only been able to take the Countess’s hand and disappear into the mirror, diving into another world.

Therese could still feel the Countess’s touch on her cheek. But the sensation would pale over time, and eventually nothing would remain. Even the portrait had to stay here.

There had been a life before Carolyn Aird and there would be, there had to be, one after her. Even if it seemed empty and bleak. Therese had been satisfied with her life before and would learn to be it again. She would focus on Beth’s recovery and on her next commissions, she would pay off her debts to the Countess, and her shaken soul would eventually calm down again.

Therese hated the hot tears, spreading on her pillow. Her whole life seemed to have changed within just a few days. On the face of it, everything was still the same, but inwardly not a stone was left standing. What on earth had happened? Was she just a freak of nature? The toy of a cruel God? Would she ever be able to have the same feelings for a man as she had for the Countess? Therese couldn’t imagine it. Actually, she couldn’t imagine it with anybody else, man or woman.

Apparently, fate had decided she would live her life without another person at her side. However, she was lucky. There was no reason to complain: She had enough money to live on, she received a lot of credit for her work, she was able to travel and she could support her family. Most of her clients were kind and respectful and appreciated her paintings. That had to be enough. It was more than most people had in their lives.

Yet still, Therese’s entire body ached that night, as if she was in a fever. A deep, nagging pain extended from the center of her body towards her heart and her limbs. It constricted her throat, churned her stomach and throbbed between her legs. Outside, the birds began to sing when Therese finally fell into a restless, superficial sleep.

After breakfast, Therese invited Nerinda to take a walk along the Thames with her. Different from their first encounter, the girl was quiet and shy at first, but with the increasing distance from the Essex House she began to thaw and eventually started to jump around like a wild grasshopper. Therese laughed and joked with her, happy the girl had such a good time.

Nerinda asked Therese to teach her some games she had loved as a child and she giggled and squeaked with pleasure, excitedly clapping her hand when she had worked out something or Therese had made a mistake. “You are very bad at playing hide-and-seek, Mr. Belivet!” she shouted, pulling Therese out from behind a tree yet again. “You are much too big.”

“I’m trying to make myself smaller,” Therese justified herself, but only received a pitying look from the girl.

“Would you like to be my friend, Mr. Belivet?” Nerinda asked as they continued their walk after a while. She picked up a branch from the ground and dragged it along behind her, looking at Therese with her big blue eyes. The same eyes as her mother’s.

The sincere look on the girl’s face melted Therese’s heart. She liked spending time with Nerinda; she cared for the little girl, which was precisely the reason why she didn’t want to lie to her. “I would love being your friend, Nerinda, but I’m going to depart tomorrow,” she explained, reaching for the girl’s small hand. “I’m only here to paint your mother.”

The disappointment on the girl’s face was hard to bear. “Will you come back, Mr. Belivet?” Nerinda asked shyly. “My mother can invite you again, right?”

Of course, Therese wanted to come back, of course she wanted the girl to have a friend. But if she saw the Countess again on a more or less regular basis, her yearning would never vanish and her pain would never heal. “I’ll talk to your parents, Nerinda, okay?” Therese gave in reluctantly.

“Yes!” Nerinda obviously took Therese’s answer as a firm promise and threw the branch back to the bushes. “Come with me, Mr. Belivet. We need to check out if we’ll find frogs at the bank.” She tugged on Therese’s sleeve.

The riverside was muddy and lumpy and it wasn't long before both Therese’s and Nerinda’s shoes were covered with wet sand. “Did your mother allow you to get dirty, Nerinda?” Therese looked at Nerinda’s small shoes with concern. It was only a question of time before the girl’s dress and stockings would be soaked as well.

When she saw Nerinda’s terrified face, Therese carried her in her arms further from the bank. “We’d better go back to the house,” she decided. “We’ll sneak into my chamber and I’ll clean your shoes until they are sparkling clean again.”

“Okay.” Nerinda agreed, visibly relieved, and helped Therese remove some of the dirt with sticks and grass. The girl wanted to be carried home, afraid her shoes would get dirty again, and the servants were slightly flabbergasted when Therese carried the Earl’s daughter in her arms into the house. But nobody made any comments about it. Maybe the staff enjoyed Nerinda’s shining eyes as much as Therese did.

After Therese had cleaned Nerinda’s shoes and clothes, she brought the girl back to her chamber. Then she cleaned her own boots and asked Sarah for a cup of tea. The next portrait session wouldn’t start before noon, so she still had some time to bridge.

Therese had made such progress with the portrait that the presence of the Countess wasn’t imperative anymore, but of course it made her work a lot easier. And above all, it gave her the opportunity to spend some more time with the Countess. Even though Therese had considered departing earlier just the night before, it felt unthinkable again today. The hours since she had last seen the Countess already felt like months.

The quiet sounds of the harpsichord reached Therese’s ears when she headed for the music room. She knew that piece – it was a sonata by Francesco Cavalli her master in Utrecht had played himself sometimes. As soon as Therese knocked at the door, the music stopped and Therese heard steps coming closer to the door. She had wanted to compliment the Countess on her play, but she swallowed her words as soon as she saw the Countess’s facial expression.

The Countess looked as if she had been crying and Therese wished she could just ask her whether something was wrong. But she was not Carolyn Aird’s friend, nor was she her husband. So she just carried the easel to the correct spot and prepared everything for their session.

The Countess sat down on her chair at the window again and Therese started to paint without another word. It was obvious that the Countess was miles away and when she sighed, probably without noticing it, Therese couldn’t take it any longer. “It’s not imperative that you are here, my lady,” she said cautiously. “I can continue without you.”

“No.” The Countess shook her head. “I want to be here.”

“Is everything all right, my lady?”

“No.” The Countess shook her head again. “There are still riots going on in Scotland and Harold has decided to stay in Edinburgh for a few more days. I got his message this morning.”

“Oh …” Therese tried to ignore the nagging jealousy rising inside of her and put her brush aside. It was natural that the Countess was worried about her husband, especially because the riots in Scotland usually were extremely violent. “I’m sorry to hear that, my lady.”

“He had promised me he would come back as soon as possible.” The Countess ran her fingers through her blonde hair. “But he just can’t help it. He criticizes the King all day long, but when the Scottish revolt, the two suddenly are of one heart and one mind.”

Therese walked closer to the Countess, but then stopped indecisively. She wished she could do something to take away the sadness from her. “I’m sure he won’t be long …”

“You don’t know that,” the Countess interrupted her harshly. “First, he initiates this huge meeting with all the lords and when it’s time to start with the preparations, he’s in Scotland.”

“I’m sorry, my lady.” Therese felt awkward and clumsy. “I just wish I could do something for you.”

“It has nothing to do with you.”

Therese hung her head in shame. The Countess was right. It was none of her business what was going on in the Aird’s house.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” The Countess’s voice softened. She had obviously noticed that she had hurt Therese. “It’s very kind of you that you want to help me, but some things are just the way they are.” She sighed. “Nerinda needs her father. It’s difficult for her when Harold is away from home.”

“Do you miss him?” The question left Therese’s lips before she could stop it.

The Countess raised her head and looked into Therese’s eyes for the very first time that day. “You know that’s not what this is about, don’t you?”

Something in her gaze made Therese dizzy and she kneeled on the ground to remove some red stain of paint from the floorboards before it dried. “I don’t know if I know anything anymore,” she said hesitantly.

The Countess went silent again and for a long while neither of them said anything. Suddenly, the Countess rose from her chair and joined Therese on the floor. “The world is a strange place, isn’t it?” she said quietly.

Therese nodded silently, taking the offered hand from the Countess.

“I wish I would miss my husband as much as I will miss you,” the Countess said so quietly that Therese could hardly hear her.

“And I wish I would never have to leave you, my lady,” Therese whispered. Her heart pounded against her chest as she looked up and met the Countess’s eyes.

Slowly, like a fragile treasure, Therese moved the precious hand to her lips. Why couldn’t she be a figure in a fairy-tale who had been granted a free wish? She knew exactly what she would wish.

She was still thinking about her wish when the Countess’s face came dangerously close, and then Therese felt her soft lips on her mouth. She started shaking and instinctively pulled the Countess closer. “Therese,” the Countess whispered against her lips.

Therese’s fingers slid through blonde curls while she opened her mouth for the Countess. Her red lips were so much softer, so much sweeter than Therese had remembered them. “My lady,” she whispered, on the verge of fainting. “Carolyn …”

The Countess sighed as she heard Therese whispering her name and pressed her body more firmly against her. Like in a trance, Therese’s hands started to wander over the blue dress, reaching for the strings. With a start, the dress gave in and Therese’s hands eagerly slid under the cloth. She felt the Countess pushing her down and she gasped for air when the sweet scent of her perfume clouded her senses. Frantically, she pushed the cloth away, searching for skin and finding it and both women moaned as Therese’s fingers brushed a soft breast. Therese’s lips dove into the Countess’s mouth, got lost in it, wanting everything at once.

“Therese …” The Countess’s voice seemed to come from far away. “No …” Her face was glowing and her breathing was so heavy that she could hardly speak. “We can’t do this.”

Therese’s heart was racing and her mind spinning. What had happened? Hadn’t the Countess initiated it? “My lady …”

“Carolyn,” the Countess corrected her and started to tie her dress again. “Please, call me Carolyn.”

Therese closed her eyes when the room started spinning. “Carolyn,” she repeated numbly. The name felt sweet and strange on her tongue. Like a forbidden fruit. “I don’t understand …”

“I’m sorry, it’s my fault.” Carolyn ran her fingers through her tangled curls. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Therese stared at her with bloodshot eyes. “I don’t care anymore what is right and what is wrong.”

“But I do.” Carolyn was on the verge of tears. “I’m really sorry.”

Therese’s stomach turned into a big knot. How was she supposed to suppress what she was feeling? “Maybe …” She fell silent when her voice broke. “Maybe I’d better go then.”

Carolyn nodded reluctantly. It was obvious that she wanted this as little as Therese but fate wasn’t on their side.

“I mean … forever,” Therese said slowly. She didn’t dare look at Carolyn but she heard her inhale sharply.

“Forever?” Carolyn asked tonelessly. “Why?”

“Because I can’t …” Therese couldn’t suppress a sob. “Because I can’t be near you without … without wanting to …”

“Therese …” Carolyn reached out, brushing a tear from Therese’s cheek. “I’m not free.”

“Yes, I know.” As if she could forget that. But if Carolyn really wanted this, if she really cared for her, then why couldn’t Therese be her mistress? This was quite common in noble circles, after all.

“I won’t cheat on my husband,” Carolyn said, as if she could read Therese’s thoughts. “I have a child to protect. And you would burn at the stake if someone found out.”

Therese nodded bravely while her heart was breaking into a thousand pieces. She didn’t care what would happen if somebody found out about them.

“Please, don’t go away forever,” Carolyn pleaded. “We could see each other from time to time, enjoy each other’s company …”

Therese shook her head in defeat. After all that had happened, it felt impossible to see Carolyn Aird without being able to touch her. Just as well she could rub salt into her wound every day. For more than 22 years, she hadn’t known what it meant to feel passion, or craving, or desire, or love. Now she knew, and she knew it was stronger than she was herself. If she stayed, she would only suffer. “I should go,” she said quietly and kissed the back of Carolyn’s hand.

“Don’t go.” Carolyn grabbed Therese’s arm. “Please don’t go, Therese.”

Therese shook her head.

“What about Nerinda?” Carolyn’s hand weakly fell back into her lap. “She would love to play with you again. And what about the portrait? We aren’t finished yet …”

“Your portrayal is inside of me, Carolyn, believe me.” Therese needed all her strength to not back down now. “How could I ever forget it?”

Carolyn nodded, brushing the traces of her kisses from Therese’s cheeks with her thumb. Therese just wanted to put her arms around her and never let go, and part of her wished Carolyn would keep her more forcefully from leaving. It felt impossible to just rise and leave, but it was equally impossible to stay.

Therese knew she needed time to think about all this, to sort out her life and to come back to her senses. She felt like on a drug and was scared to wake up from it. But sooner or later she had to wake up, and she wanted to be far away from Carolyn Aird by then. Carolyn wanted her friendship and she couldn’t give that to her. It was as simple as that. She didn’t have the strength to fool everybody again, even less Carolyn Aird, and least of all, herself.

Therese’s legs felt heavy as lead when she slowly rose from the floor and started to gather her tools.

“Don’t bother. Somebody will carry your belongings to the coach.” Carolyn’s voice sounded hard and foreign. She was still sitting on the floor and when Therese grabbed her hand to pull her up, she looked into icy-blue eyes, proud and aloof like on the very first day. “Goodbye, Therese.” Carolyn shook her hand as if they were strangers. “Good luck with the portrait.”

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Chapter 9



“Therese, your soup’s getting cold.” Mrs. Belivet shot a disapproving glance at her daughter’s full plate. “You need to eat something, my dear.” She had cooked only Therese’s favorite meals in the last days but her daughter hadn’t touched almost any of them.

“You know that I’ve upset my stomach,” Therese muttered, aware that her mother wouldn’t believe a word. She had been there when Therese had arrived in Sudbury and had noticed very well the state she had been in on that day. Therese had retreated to her chamber and hadn’t wanted to talk to anybody. Not even Beth’s progress seemed to cheer her up.

“You had a fight with the Earl, didn’t you?” Mrs. Belivet said it more as a statement than as a question. “They say he’s difficult to get on with.”

Therese shook her head and tried to eat a spoonful of lentil soup, but her throat constricted before she even could take the spoon to her mouth.

“So what’s going on then?” Mrs. Belivet scrutinized her. “Did anybody else cause you trouble? The Countess perhaps?”

Again, Therese shook her head, but she couldn’t help herself from blushing.

“I see.” Eleanor Belivet wiped some crumbs from the dining table with her hand. “So the Countess is responsible for your miserable condition.”

“Why don’t you admit it, Therese?” Eda took a second ladle of soup from the pot and poured it on Martha’s and her plate. “I’ve already accepted two letters from her for you and you haven’t opened even one of them.”

“I haven’t found the time yet.” Therese stood up from the table to avoid further questions. “You know the portrait has to be finished by the end of the month.”

“May I see it?” Martha asked for the maybe fifth time, hoping that Therese would finally give in. “I thought the Countess was drop-dead beautiful and I’d love to see how you’ve painted her.”

“Not before it’s finished, Martha.” Therese took her half-full plate and carried it back to the kitchen. “I don’t want to be disturbed tonight.” She stopped in the doorframe. “But if it’s all right with you, I would like to be the one telling Beth her bedtime story.”

Therese knew her mother wanted her to participate more in the family life and Beth’s company had at least the advantage that she didn’t ask any unpleasant questions. Therese was angry at herself that she couldn’t be more delighted by Beth’s progress, but there was a constant heaviness inside of her that she just couldn’t shake off, no matter how often she tried.

Not long ago Therese hadn’t been able to think of anything other than Beth’s recovery and her only wish had been that she would get better. And now that the medicine was finally working, she couldn’t make herself share her family’s joy and relief. Instead, her thoughts solely revolved around Carolyn Aird and around the things that had happened. Only her work on the portrait brought her some kind of peace. It helped her sort all the strange feelings inside of herself, and it gave Therese a good excuse to retreat to her chamber, where she could give herself over to grief. She feverishly worked on the completion of the painting and nobody saw the tears streaming down her cheeks.

It was the only time when the churning sea inside of her calmed down, when she could express what was inside of her. Therese painted like mad and little by little the painting changed its character. Like her predecessors, Therese had at first focused on the beauty and grace the Countess usually radiated. But now the features of the Countess became softer and more approachable. Her eyes didn’t only shine with pride and aloofness anymore but revealed a kind, loving soul behind an aristocratic façade. The person in the painting was still angelic but at the same time more human and available.

Yet, Therese was sure that the sensuality of the lips and the hidden erotic in the way Carolyn Aird held her hands were only visible for her. The portrait remained faithful to the Earl’s wish to show his wife as a beautiful, proud lady. But on closer inspection the deep symbolic power in the elements, that Therese had added, were revealed. The special incidence of light let the Countess’s character shine in a unique way and there was no doubt that this was the best painting Therese had ever created in her life.

But more important was whether the Earl was satisfied with Therese’s work. The thought of entering the Essex House once again caused a dull pain in Therese’s stomach. The fear of the Earl’s judgment was bad enough, but the idea of meeting Carolyn again was almost unbearable. Therese felt like an open, gaping wound that had to be protected from the world, and especially from Carolyn Aird.

About a hundred times a day, Therese regretted her decision, but every time she came to the conclusion that it had been right. Carolyn didn’t want her love. Instead, she had suggested that they would ‘see each other from time to time’. But Therese wouldn’t be able to witness Carolyn living a seemingly happy life with her husband while Therese was allowed to take a walk with Nerinda and her every now and then.

There was no hope for what Therese wanted, what she suddenly seemed to desire with her entire being without having any explanation for it. It was as if she had taken a drug that would control her for the rest of her life. The biggest surprise had been that Carolyn had reciprocated her affection. Yet, the Countess had made clear that she didn’t want to give these feelings any room, and therefore the only thing Therese could do was to remove herself from the drug as far away as possible.

Therese would have loved to be a friend to Nerinda. The lonesome little girl wanted to have a friend so badly. But Therese couldn’t be that friend. Each time she looked at the girl, she saw her mother. It was impossible to meet her and play with her, if Therese wanted to find a way back into her old life. And she needed to do that urgently. Everything was so confusing - her feelings for Carolyn, her sudden desire to be able to live as a woman again – sometimes Therese just wanted to turn back time to the moment before she had met Carolyn.

Since Therese was back in Sudbury, she’d realized that she had lost the connection to her life, to who she was, to who she pretended to be. Things that had seemed important and desirable before were suddenly sinking into insignificance. Therese failed to see the world as she had seen it before. Even her work was changing. Inside of her were more colors, but more darkness, too. More light, but also more shadows. The contrasts had become greater and she felt a landscape inside of her that had been unknown to her before. She sensed that there was something inside of her that waited to express itself in the next paintings and she felt an urgent need to paint nonstop.

It was probably best to leave England again as soon as possible. The people’s discontent with the King was getting worse and it was only a question of time until the unrest would escalate in the entire country. So there were a lot of good reasons to go back to the continent. The people in Rome, Amsterdam and Munich valued Therere’s work and she would make good money there. And above all, she would be far away from the Essex House.

The days went by and finally spring came. Beth felt a little better every day and to everybody’s delight, she could eventually stand up for the first time. She was so weak that she had to lie down again after only a few steps, but it was a start. Therese’s mother and sisters were overjoyed and hopeful and little by little, Therese’s mood lifted, too. Spring was always the busiest time of the year at the weaving mill, so Therese helped her sisters as best she could, and in the afternoons she continued her work on the portrait or painted trees and meadows.

“Isn’t your master angry about your long stay here?” her neighbor Charlotte asked, as she brought Therese fresh eggs. Therese had known her since childhood and like everyone else in Sudbury, the sturdy old woman assumed that Therese was employed as a maid somewhere in Europe.

“My master is away himself at the moment,” Therese responded, handing Charlotte a bunch of herbs in return for the eggs. How she hated it, having to lie all the time. “I won’t stay for very much longer, though.”

“What a pity.” Charlotte stroked Therese’s cheek with her rough hand. “Your mother always blossoms when she’s surrounded by all of her daughters.”

“I’m sure I’ll be back soon,” Therese assured her and gave Charlotte a heavy bag with apples as well. “Do you have some linseed oil for me? I won’t need much.” It wasn’t a secret in the neighborhood that Therese had always loved roaming around the area and painting sceneries.

Since she had finished the portrait, Therese liked to tramp through the fields with her easel and to paint wild, untamed landscapes with black trees bending in the wind. Of course she was aware that it was more than time to give the portrait to the Earl, but she couldn’t make herself part with it. Besides, the mere thought of traveling to the Essex House made her stomach churn. It would probably be the easiest to engage a messenger who would bring the painting to the Earl.

“I’m sorry, but we’re out of linseed oil for weeks, my dear.” Charlotte shook her grey head. “But if you go get some oil, would you be so kind as to get a jug for us as well?” She showed the size of the jug with her hands. “Henry has accidentally dropped ours.” Since the tremor of her husband’s hands had gotten worse, he often dropped things by accident.

“Of course I can.” Therese gave Charlotte a hug. “I’ll drop by on my way back.”

When Therese’s sisters heard about her plan to go to the market, they recited a large list of things they wanted her to purchase as well, with the result that Therese’s trip took more than three hours. When she was finally on her way back home, her feet were already hurting and her shoulders pained from the burden of the jug on her back.

As promised, Therese payed Charlotte and Henry a quick visit and brought them their new jug. Charlotte gratefully gave her a squeeze when Therese told her she didn’t want to have anything for the jug. “You’re always so kind to us.” Charlotte kissed Therese’s forehead. “God bless you, little one.”

Therese had seen some beautiful brushes at the market and gave one of them to Charlotte before she went back to her parents’ house. To her surprise, her mother was already standing in the door when she came around the corner. “Is anything wrong?” she asked, registering the annoyed expression in her mother’s face. “I’m sorry it took so long …”

“What’s going on with you and the Countess?” her mother sternly interrupted her.

“Excuse me?” Therese stopped dead in her tracks. “What are you talking about?”

“She was here.” Therese’s mother pointed at hoof prints in front of the house. “Why does the Countess pay us a visit and want to talk to you, Therese? And why don’t you open her letters?” She pushed Therese through the front door. “Luckily, you were away. Otherwise the Countess would have seen you …” Her gaze wandered over Therese’s dress. “… like this.”

Therese carried her bags into the kitchen. Carolyn had been here? She felt her pulse quicken immediately. Carolyn had ridden all the way to Sudbury?

“Did that woman force herself on you?” Therese’s mother asked furiously. “You don’t need to protect her, Therese. I know these noble idiots all too well.” She stopped in the doorframe, arms akimbo. “I knew she would expect a favor in return when she helped us. It’s always the same with the rich. And now you have to pay for it. All of us, as a matter of fact.”

“Is the Countess still here?” Therese peered past her mother at the corridor.

“No, but she said she would come back another time.” Mrs. Belivet shook her head angrily. “Only over my dead body will this person enter my house. Or do you want to wear male clothes all day, just in case that woman feels like dropping by again?”

Therese rolled her hurting shoulders. “You’re mistaken, Mother. The Countess didn’t do anything wrong and she never expected anything in return.”

“I don’t believe you.” Her mother skeptically furrowed her brow. “Then why don’t you open her letters? And why have you been moping around here for weeks as if somebody had died? I know something happened between the two of you.”

“Well, we …” Therese struggled for words.

“Did you have a fight?”

“No, I …” The white lie was already on Therese’s tongue, but she swallowed it down at the last moment. When she started to even lie to her own mother now, she couldn’t look at herself in the mirror anymore. “It was more a … disagreement,” she said vaguely.

“A disagreement?” Mrs. Belivet grabbed her by the shoulders. “That’s not how your father and I raised you, my dear. We taught our children good manners and if you have a disagreement with whomsoever, you try to clear it up instead of avoiding them.”

“I know, but …”

“So what kind of a stupid idea is it to send a messenger to the Earl? And don’t pretend you didn’t take that into consideration. Martha told me all about it.”

“Mother, please …”

“Of course you will personally ride to the Earl, you will bring him the portrait and talk to the Countess to clear up any misunderstandings.” Mrs. Belivet shook her head about her daughter’s immature behavior. “Do you have any idea what we’re supposed to tell our neighbors? I bet the Countess’s visit is already the topic of the day.”

Therese sat down on a chair, tired and exhausted. Her mother was right, of course. And apart from that it was common that a painter gave a picture personally to his customer, so that he would have the chance to reject the painting or to ask for some changes.

“I’ll think about it, Mother.” Therese gave her mother a kiss on the cheek and retreated to her chamber with the linseed oil. But instead of grounding the colors, she sat down on her bed and opened the two letters Carolyn had sent her.

The first letter had been written one day after Therese’s departure and it was actually a letter from Nerinda who had dictated the words to her mother. She told Therese about a toad she had found in the gardens and that she had brought to the riverside of the Thames. At the end of the letter she asked Therese to visit her again.

Therese closed the letter with a frown. The little girl was probably waiting for her response for weeks and had to be pretty disappointed by now.

The second letter was shorter and from Carolyn herself. She asked Therese not to completely break off contact with her. Dearest Therese, she wrote. There are no accidents. But we both know that life often means to make sacrifices. But isn’t the bird in a hand worth two in the bush? Wouldn’t it be foolish to decline something just because something else one wants more isn’t attainable? You are young, you see things differently, but maybe you will understand this one day. Carolyn.

Therese put the letter back on the table and crawled under the blanket. Why did Carolyn make it so difficult for her? Obviously she had no idea what it meant for Therese to see her. How could she? Carolyn had her daughter, her husband. Therese, however, had nobody. She just felt that she had to go away from here, away from Carolyn, away from England. It was the only way to find peace again.

But Therese’s mother was right that she had to talk to Carolyn one last time. Otherwise, she wouldn’t stop sending letters or even pay her a visit. The Airds were probably busy with the preparations of the upcoming meeting anyway. Neither the Earl nor Carolyn would have much time for her, which was more than fine with Therese.

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Chapter 10



The next morning Therese went to Eddy, the blacksmith at the end of the street, and asked him to lend her his one-horse carriage for a day. Since his wife had died, he rarely used the carriage anymore and sometimes lent it to relatives and neighbors. As hoped, he was glad about the additional earnings and an hour later Therese harnessed his old horse Betty to the carriage. She had wrapped linen sheets around the painting and stowed it in the back of the carriage, right next to her clothes that she would put on as soon as she had left Sudbury.

Eddy’s fourteen year old mare had passed its peak long ago but it was still a good, faithful horse that seldom shied if ever. Once, Eddy had been mugged by highwaymen and Becky had just calmly grazed at the roadside until Eddy had finally put the attackers to flight with a few skillful sword thrusts. So the old mare was definitely reliable and Therese was confident that her own nervousness wouldn’t spread too much to the horse.

Eddy was a tight lipped guy. He didn’t ask any questions about the painting that she stowed in the back of his carriage, nor did he want to know where she was going. When she eventually sat in his one-horse shay, he just wished her good luck, smacked his mare on the bottom, and disappeared in the stable without another word.

Meanwhile, the sun had dispelled the mist and small beads of sweat appeared under Therese’s white bonnet while Becky trotted through Sudbury. At the end of the settlement Therese turned into a field road where she could change clothes without being seen. She had put on the chest bandage at home already, so that the transformation from Therese into Theodore Belivet could take place quite quickly.

Even stronger than before, Therese felt that Theodore Belivet’s clothes were like a uniform, where she could hide. The moment she wore her usual pants again, she immediately felt calmer and more confident. If the Earl was satisfied with the portrait, Therese’s visit would be over very quickly. After the meeting with the Earl, she would look for Carolyn, under the excuse that she would like to say farewell to her, too. She would tell Carolyn that she didn’t want any further contact and would be back in Sudbury before sunset.

Nevertheless, Therese’s hands started to sweat when she arrived at the Airds’ property. Sarah, the young maid, was shaking a carpet in front of the house and ran towards her as soon as she had spotted her. “Good morning, Mr. Belivet.” She made a curtsy. “Are you delivering the painting?”

“Yes, I am.” Therese jumped from the carriage and tapped Becky’s mane. “Do you think the Earl will have time to see me today?”

“I guess so, but he’s in a meeting right now.” Sarah tickled Becky between the ears. “I can take your horse to the stable master, Sir. He will take good care of it.”

“Thank you, Sarah.” Therese handed Sarah the reins and took the wrapped painting from the carriage. “I don’t intend to stay long.”

“That wouldn’t be possible anyway.” Sarah smiled. “Hell has broken loose here. Believe me, Mr. Belivet.”

“Because of the meeting?”

“Yes.” Sarah waved another servant over and asked him to take care of Therese’s horse and carriage. “I’d better accompany you myself,” she informed Therese and led her to a big hall in the house that Therese hadn’t seen before. A huge carpet with several hunting scenes covered the floor and eight tables, each with groups of chairs, were accurately arranged in the room. “If you would be so kind to wait here, Mr. Belivet.” Sarah curtsied again. “I’ll tell the Earl about your arrival.”

Therese leaned the wrapped painting against the wall and took a closer look at the luxuriantly furnished room. It was filled with little objects from other countries and on the walls were paintings with scenes from the Greek mythology – all well done, Therese had to admit. If the Earl intended to make an impression on the other lords, this hall was definitely suited for it. Everything was clean as a whistle and not a single grain of dust was visible.

When Therese lifted a candlestick to look closely at it, she noticed that her hands were shaking. Staying in this house again triggered all the emotions she had tried so hard to suppress in the last weeks. The smell of the rooms alone made her feel dizzy and Therese involuntarily put a hand on her chest to take a deep breath. In less than an hour she would leave all this behind and close this chapter once and for all.

Therese closed her eyes and counted to ten. Her father had taught her that trick when she had been a child – he had always claimed that all worries would appear in a different light at the end of the counting. Therese had no idea why she was following her father’s advice now of all times, since his trick had never worked for her anyway.

She cursed quietly when she accidentally hit a copper vase on the floor that fell down on the ground with a thump. Luckily, the vase was empty and Therese was able to put it back in its spot without attracting any attention, or so she thought.

All of a sudden the door behind her opened and Carolyn Aird walked out. “Harold, is everything …?” She went quiet as she spotted Therese. “Mr. Belivet?”

“My lady.” Therese clutched at the edge of the table, seeking support.

Carolyn looked down the hallway and then quietly closed the door behind her. “Therese …”

Therese raised her hand to indicate that Carolyn should stay right where she was. “Please, Carolyn. I’m only here to deliver the portrait.”

Carolyn was visibly surprised by Therese’s clarity and took a step back. “So you haven’t changed your mind.”

“I can’t, Carolyn.” Therese’s voice was shaking. Changed her mind? Why couldn’t Carolyn understand that this wasn’t about an opinion she could just change? It was a necessity.

“May I see it? The portrait?”

“Yes, of course.” Therese felt the ground swaying under her feet as she walked to the painting and carefully removed the sheets. She had mounted an elegant, golden frame so that the picture would match the other paintings in the gallery. With great care, she laid the portrait down on the table in front of Carolyn.

“Oh my God.” Carolyn dropped down on the chair next to Therese. “I …”

“You don’t like it?”

“I do … It’s just …” She covered her mouth with her hand. “That’s how you see me?”

“Yes.” Therese was startled by the tears in Carolyn’s eyes and instinctively put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently.

“That’s not me.” Carolyn shook her head. “Maybe that’s who I could be.”

“No, it is you.” Therese withdrew her hand, noticing how dangerous the touch was. If she wasn’t more careful, she wouldn’t be able to follow through with her plan. “I’ve only painted what’s already there,” she said matter-of-factly.

Carolyn was still staring at the painting. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said with a trembling voice, touching the details of the painting with her fingertips. The open window, the violin, the harpsichord, the hem of her gown … “Has Harold seen it yet?”

“No, I’m here to show it to him.”

“I see.” Carolyn withdrew her hand. “He will like it.”

“I hope so.” Therese covered the painting with the sheets again and leaned it against the wall. “I will be able to pay my debts then.”

“How is Beth doing?”

“She’s a lot better.” Therese thought of the day when she had prepared the herbs with Carolyn in the kitchen. Without her unconventional intervention Beth might not be alive anymore. “Thanks to your great help Beth has already left the bed for a little while.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” A smile ran over Carolyn’s face, but it vanished quickly. She went to the wrapped painting and touched the white linen. “Do you have any idea how it will be to see this painting in the gallery every day, reminding me of your absence?” she asked in a toneless voice.

“At least you have the painting,” Therese mumbled. “I don’t have anything. Would you like that better?”

“Therese …”

Both women startled when the door opened and the Earl walked in. “Ah, Mr. Belivet.” He smiled, apparently in a good mood. “I left my meeting to have a quick look at the portrait.” He shook Therese’s hand. “I hope you won’t disappoint me, Mr. Belivet.”

“Me too, my lord.” Therese removed the sheets again. Considering the paintings on the wall, the Earl definitely preferred a more conservative style. But even if he didn’t like the portrait, she wouldn’t have been able to paint it in any other way.

The Earl’s eyes widened and he bent closer to the painting. “Well done, Mr. Belivet,” he said approvingly. “I had to wait quite a while for a talent like yours.” He patted Therese’s shoulder. “This is really good.”

“Thank you very much, my lord.” Therese took a deep bow.

“What do you think, my darling?” The Earl turned to his wife. “Do you like it too?”

“It’s beautifully done,” Carolyn confirmed with a smile.

“Because you are beautiful, my love,” the Earl stated and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “It’s just so difficult to find somebody who’s able to capture that.”

Therese couldn’t help thinking of the moment in the music room and felt a twinge of jealousy again, no matter how much she tried to keep her distance from Carolyn. Why couldn’t she just usher out her feelings like an uninvited guest?

The Earl turned to Therese again. “Mr. Belivet, if you could wait here for a while, I’ll take care of your pay.” He gave her a firm handshake. “I have to go back to my meeting, but maybe we’ll see each other again. I’ll let you know if I have another commission for you.” He nodded at Carolyn before he closed the door behind himself and Therese was alone with Carolyn again.

An awkward silence filled the room while Therese was wrapping the sheets around the painting, watched by Carolyn. “Can I convince you to stay overnight?” she asked eventually. “You wouldn’t need to ride through the darkness.”

“If I leave now, I will arrive in Sudbury before sunset.”

“Please, Therese.” Carolyn stepped closer to her. “I want to say a proper goodbye to you.”

“Do it here.”

“Why don’t you give us at least a few hours?” Carolyn nervously ran her fingers through her hair. “There’s too much to do today, but we could take a walk tomorrow morning.”

“Carolyn …” Against her better judgment, Therese took a step towards her. “It hurts to be near you. Don’t you understand that?”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” Carolyn said quietly. “It’s the same for me.”

“Then please let me go.”

Therese felt Carolyn’s hand sliding into hers and just let it happen. She needed to leave before it was too late, but her legs didn’t move.

“So I won’t see you again.” Carolyn smiled sadly as she met Therese’s eyes.

Therese fought back her tears. To actually hear the words spoken aloud by Carolyn’s deep voice made them even crueler. “There would be another way,” she said, casting down her eyes.

“No, there wouldn’t.” Carolyn captured Therese’s cheek with her hand. “This is not about me, Therese,” she said softly. “It’s about Nerinda. I can’t take any risks.”

Therese closed her eyes when Carolyn’s fingers brushed her cheek. How was she supposed to survive never seeing her again? She could be just as little away from Carolyn as she could be near her. “Please, Carolyn, give me at least one night,” she whispered. “Just one night.” Her eyelids were heavy as lead as she raised them again and looked into Carolyn’s blue eyes. Those beautiful eyes that had haunted her dreams for weeks. “Please, I need something to hold on to.”

Carolyn looked at her for a long time, with her eyes wide and deep blue like windows to a sealed soul. Her expression didn’t reveal anything and it was impossible to guess what she was thinking. “All right,” she said eventually. “When?”

Therese stopped breathing as Carolyn’s response slowly reached her consciousness. She was sure she wouldn’t be able to set foot on the Airds’ estate ever again, so there was only one option. “Today.”

“Today?” The Countess stepped back. “Are you cr-”

“I could sleep in the stable and …”

Both women jerked apart when they heard a knock at the door and the servant Oliver walked in. He held a big moneybag in his hands, probably with Therese’s wage. “If you would be so kind to sign this, Sir,” he said in his formal voice and handed Therese a piece of paper. “Again, the Earl thanks you for your service.”

Therese was so distracted that she had difficulty remembering her own name as she signed the document. Hastily, she gave the paper back to Oliver and received a handful of coins without recounting them. Oliver took a deep bow towards her and Carolyn before he disappeared with the document again.

Just as he had left the room, Therese turned to Carolyn and gave her the coins. “I know it’s not enough. I’ll send you the rest of the money as soon as I get it.”

“No, I don’t want this.” Carolyn gave her the coins back. “Your family needs it more than I do.”

Therese was about to object but she knew Carolyn well enough to know that she wouldn’t accept any dissent. “Thank you very much, Carolyn” she said instead, standing indecisively in front of her. Did they really have an appointment or had she just imagined it?

“Someone will bring some warm blankets to the stable.” Carolyn’s hand briefly brushed Therese’s back as she went past her to the door. “I need to go now,” she explained. “We’re in the middle of the preparations for the meeting.”

“When will you join me?”

“As soon as I can arrange it.”

“Will you come at all?”

“I’ll try.”






* * *






The sun was high in the sky when Therese stepped out of the Essex House to take a walk along the Thames. How was she supposed to bridge the time until evening? The upcoming hours lay in front of her like an endless road. A walk along the river would definitely do her good, but Therese felt a strange fear to diverge from the Essex House, as if she wouldn’t be able to come back anymore once she had left the estate.

Therese had just turned around the corner of the house when Nerinda spotted her. “Mr. Theodore!” the girl shouted excitedly, running towards Therese with her short legs. “You came!”

“Hello, little lady!” Therese lifted the beaming girl into her arms. “I’m here to deliver the painting and was hoping to see you,” she told her with a smile. “Would you like to play a game with me?”

“First I need to show you the toad that I’ve found.” Nerinda tugged at her sleeve. “It’s always sitting on the same spot,” she explained with a serious expression on her face. “I think it lives there.”

They walked along the riverside for a while, until Nerinda dragged Therese into the bushes. “There!” she whispered excitedly and pointed at a flat stone at the shore. There was indeed a toad, taking a bath in the warm sunlight.

“That’s a pretty big one,” Therese whispered. “It looks like it will lay eggs soon.”

“You think so?” Nerinda beamed. “Then we’ll have plenty of toads here soon.”

“That’s possible.” Therese gently pulled Nerinda away from the animal. “We don’t want to bother it, do we? The safer it feels, the more likely it will stay here and lay eggs.”

“I need to catch a fly for the toad. Maybe it’s hungry.”

“I think your toad has everything it needs,” Therese assured her. “But you’d better check on it every day.” She took Nerinda’s hand. “Would you like to play hide-and-seek?”

“You’re so bad at that game.” Nerinda frowned.

“I’ll try to improve.”

“Okay. You stay right here.” Nerinda started to run away before she had finished her sentence. “Close your eyes!”

In the next hour, Nerinda found some excellent hiding spots and she was so absorbed with the game that she forgot time and space. But eventually they got cold and decided to go home. On the way back, Nerinda told Therese the difference between toads and frogs and asked all kinds of questions that Therese had never thought about. It felt so easy to see the world through a child’s eyes. Why did the adults forget about these things so quickly?

Like Sarah had told Therese, hell had indeed broken loose in the Essex House. Servants who Therese had never seen before ran across the corridors, carried things and furniture from one place to another and wiped and cleaned as if the King himself had announced his visit. Therese’s portrait of the Countess was already hanging on the right spot in the gallery and Therese noticed proudly that it was the most beautiful painting in the entire room.

Since they were disturbing the staff, Nerinda took Therese to her room and they played finger games until dinner was ready. The Airds were still busy, so Nerinda had to eat dinner on her own and was all the more happy when Therese offered to keep her company.

The sun set at the horizon like a red ball, when Therese said goodnight to Nerinda and then headed for the stable. She went straight to the stable master and informed him that Becky would stay overnight, which turned out to be completely unproblematic. Although the Airds had only six horses, there were about twenty boxes in the stable so that the couple could receive visitors anytime.

Therese made sure that Becky was well and took the chance to secretly look for a place where she could stay at night. The boxes turned out to be quite unsuitable because they were too easily visible. If one of the horses got colic at night, this place would be crowded with people.

The big barn next to the stable, where the hay was stored, seemed to be much more appropriate. Inside of it was a spacious loft one could only reach with a ladder. Nobody would come into the barn at night and even if somebody got lost there, they wouldn’t be able to see her in the loft.

Therese carried the warm blankets that Louise had brought to the stable over to the barn and climbed up the ladder with them. The loft was filled with tons of hay so that she could prepare herself a comfortable place for the night. Then she took off her jerkin, her trousers and her boots, removed the breast bandage under her shirt and slid under the blankets.

Since their meeting at noon Therese hadn’t seen Carolyn or her husband. It would probably take a while until the lady of the house could steal away from her husband – if at all. The circumstances couldn’t be worse, but Therese was aware that she wouldn’t get a second chance because she wouldn’t be able to set foot on this place ever again. Either Carolyn would manage to come tonight, or Therese would leave early in the morning without saying goodbye.

With a sigh, Therese turned on her back and stared at the wooden beams at the ceiling. The hay beyond warmed her and the blankets were soft and comfortable. They smelled of the Essex House and Therese breathed in deeply to memorize the scent forever. She probably should adapt herself to wait a few more hours.

But the more the night progressed, the more worried Therese became. It was so dark outside by now that Therese couldn’t see anything anymore and she had no idea how long she had been waiting already. Maybe Carolyn had gone to the stable and hadn’t found her there? Maybe she had gone back to the house then? Or maybe she hadn’t found a moment to shrink away from her husband? Or maybe she had changed her mind?

In the darkness of the night, Therese became aware how crazy and dangerous her plan was. If something went wrong, it could cost her life. And Carolyn would lose her honor forever. Therese hadn’t thought about these things when she had urged Carolyn to come to her. Why had she asked her to expose herself to such a risk?

Therese wanted to go back to the house and cancel everything – not for her sake, but for Carolyn’s sake. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that it was too late. It was just too risky to sneak out into the night at this time.

Therese was startled when she suddenly heard a creak. Shortly afterwards a weak ray of light reached the loft. Was it Carolyn? Therese held her breath and didn’t move.

“Therese?”

It was her! Carolyn was here! “I’m above in the loft,” Therese whispered. “Be careful with the ladder.”

The light came closer and eventually Therese could see Carolyn climbing the ladder step by step, an oil lamp in her hand. “Where are you?” she asked into the darkness.

“Here, in the back.” Therese waved although Carolyn couldn’t see her hand. “More to the left.”

Carolyn exhaled when the light of the lamp fell on Therese’s face. With careful steps, she came closer and put the lamp down next to Therese’s clothes. Only now did Therese see that she was only wearing a nightgown under her cloak. Apparently, she had gone to bed with her husband and had waited for him to fall asleep.

Carolyn put the cloak next to Therese’s clothes and bent down to the lamp to extinguish it.

“No.” Therese shook her head. “I want to see you.” Carolyn looked at the lamp indecisively for a moment and nodded eventually. “Come here,” Therese whispered, noticing that Carolyn was shivering. She pulled the blankets up so that Carolyn could join her.

“The nights are still so cold,” Carolyn muttered as she lay down next to her and Therese immediately put her arms around her.

Carolyn’s perfume and the smell of her hair made her feel dizzy right away. Carolyn was really here. She had come to her. Therese breathed in deeply, realizing that the tension was leaving her body little by little. Suddenly there was no yesterday, no tomorrow anymore. Just Carolyn.

A long time they just lay there, locked in an embrace, legs intertwined, and Therese wished she could capture this moment for the rest of her life. She wanted it to brand into her innermost being like a brand mark and accompany her everywhere. Therese could feel Carolyn’s breast against her own and it provoked a desire inside of her that almost took her breath away.

“You’re trembling,” Carolyn whispered.

Therese kissed her temple but stopped when she felt moisture on her cheek. Was Carolyn crying? “What’s wrong?” Therese whispered and kissed the tear from her face.

“Nothing … It’s just that …” Carolyn breathed a sigh. “I never wanted to be a woman who cheats on her husband.”

“You don’t need to be.” Therese stroked her cheek. “We can just lie here. I … I just want to be near you.” She pulled Carolyn closer and dug her fingers into the blonde hair. “I don’t know what to do anyway,” she added quietly.

“But I do.”

Therese caught her breath when she felt Carolyn’s hands under her shirt. They slowly wandered up her back, then down again to her navel and from there up to her breasts. Carolyn kissed her face, her neck, her mouth, until her lips started the same journey that her hands had done before. Inch by inch they explored her trembling body, taking their time on their trip.

Therese’s body quivered under her kisses and bright stars exploded before her eyes. “Carolyn,” she whispered as she felt Carolyn’s hands on her breasts, starting to massage her soft skin. “Carolyn …” Overwhelmed by emotions, a whimper escaped her lips. She felt like a turbulent, churning ocean, whose foaming waves were breaking on high cliffs. She moaned quietly when Carolyn touched a nipple and started to rub it between her fingers.

How was she supposed to survive this? She would die here and now. Therese searched for Carolyn’s lips and kissed them eagerly, again and again, pressing her body into the soft hay. She felt drunk, like she couldn’t get enough and covered Carolyn’s face with kisses wherever she found skin. The Her cheeks, her chin, her ear, her neck, her shoulders, everything, everything …

In a daze, she felt Carolyn’s knee slipping between her thighs. “My angel,” Carolyn whispered. “Don’t be afraid.” Therese gasped for air as Carolyn’s knee touched her most intimate spot. As if drowning, she clung to Carolyn when she felt her knee moving, slowly at first, then faster. The world started spinning, melting away, and only Carolyn was there. Carolyn who held her, while everything inside of her seemed to urge forward, to Carolyn, to the spot where her knee was, and then her hand, her delicate fingers. White lightning flashed through Therese’s brain and her whole body started to shake. More and more, until the tension finally erupted and Therese exploded in Carolyn’s arms.

Panting, Therese held onto Carolyn who gently ran her fingers over her back. “Good heavens,” Therese whispered, out of breath. “Wh-?”

Carolyn interrupted her stammering with a deep, long kiss. “You’re so beautiful, Therese,” she said under her breath. “So beautiful …”

Carolyn’s soft spoken words echoed in Therese’s head and her affection for this woman threatened to burst her chest. She wanted, she needed to show Carolyn how beautiful she was. Carefully, light as a feather, she began to run her index finger over Carolyn’s face, gently tracing the contours like a painting. Forehead, eyebrows, lids, nose, mouth, chin, cheeks, ears … “Tell me what to do,” she asked quietly.

Carolyn shook her head and kissed her fingertips. “You don’t need to do anything.”

“But I want to,” Therese insisted. “I want you to feel what I feel when I’m with you.” She took Carolyn’s face in both hands and kissed her. “It has to last for a lifetime.”

“Yes,” Carolyn whispered, touching Therese’s forehead with her own. “It has to.”

“So show me what to do.”

Carolyn still hesitated, but Therese wasn’t ready to give up so soon. “Are you afraid?” she whispered.

“A little bit.”

“What of?”

“Of everything.”

“Me too.” Therese tenderly stroked the hills of Carolyn’s delicate shoulder blades with her fingertips. They felt like wings. Therese had decided to jump – right into the middle of the unknown, trusting that Carolyn would hold her. But would Carolyn be able to have the same confidence in her? “Have you …” She covered Carolyn’s neck with small kisses. “Have you ever imagined how it would be … when we were together?”

“Of course.” Carolyn spoke into Therese’s hair and Therese could feel the tension in her body.

“Then show me,” Therese urged gently. Carolyn might lose her courage if Therese gave her too much time to think.

Carolyn hesitated for such a long time that Therese was wondering if she had fallen asleep. But all of a sudden she guided Therese’s hand to a spot right under her earlobe. “Kiss me here.” Her nervousness was apparent in her voice.

Therese obeyed eagerly but kept her moves slow and gentle to give Carolyn the chance to change her mind. Delighted, she registered the involuntary sigh that escaped Carolyn’s lips as Therese’s tongue caressed the spot beyond her ear.

“Yes … there …” Carolyn closed her eyes and Therese could feel her pulse quicken. “Now here …” She took Therese’s hand and put it onto her collarbone. Therese took her time to caress the bones on both sides, exploring all elevations and hollows, first with her fingers, then with her lips and tongue. Like her paintbrush before, she painted the shape with her mouth now. From time to time, she had to take a break, overwhelmed by too many emotions. But she always came back.

Carolyn kept her eyes closed the whole time and Therese noticed how she tried to keep her breathing under control. “You’re so incredibly beautiful,” Therese whispered. “Like a painting.”

“Now …” Carolyn took a deep, shaky breath. “Further down.”

Therese had to gather all her courage before she burrowed her face into the hollow between Carolyn’s soft breasts. Carolyn’s very own scent reached her nostrils, making her dizzy as she breathed in deeply. It was the perfect moment to die.

“Kiss me,” Carolyn whispered.

Therese took Carolyn’s ribcage in both hands and left wet traces on both breasts with her lips. Her heart was hammering in her chest when she decided to break with Carolyn’s instructions and boldly took a nipple between her teeth. Carolyn moaned at the touch and, encouraged by her reaction, Therese sucked at the sensitive bud which swelled under her tongue.

Carolyn’s face glowed with heat. She had covered her eyes with her hand and her body trembled under Therese’s. “God … Therese,” she panted. “You’re killing me.”

Therese’s heart burst with happiness and love as she switched to the other breast. She ignored the throbbing of her own body and sank her teeth deeply into Carolyn’s neck while her hands were still busy with Carolyn’s breasts. But Carolyn captured her wrist and guided her hand lower to her pubic hair. And then even lower into her wet, hot furrows and caves, her most intimate places.

Carolyn kept her hand on Therese’s, leading her through her unique landscape and Therese kissed the beads of sweat from her forehead, kissed her lips, her nose, her eyelids, holding her in a tight embrace while Carolyn’s body was shivering beneath her. “I love you, Carolyn,” she whispered. “I love you.”

Carolyn’s breath at her ear became faster, louder, and her body started to tremble uncontrollably, until it quaked under her like an exploding star. Therese kissed her temples while the waves ebbed away and Carolyn’s body went absolutely silent. She held Carolyn in her arms and spoke quiet, loving words, while kissing the lonely tear away that had dropped from the corner of her eye.

After a while, Therese extinguished the lamp and covered their bodies with the ruffled blankets again. She was exhausted but wide awake and the last thing she wanted to do was fall asleep. Not a blink of an eye would she miss of this night.

Carolyn had wrapped her arm around Therese’s hip and Therese could feel her regular breathing on her neck. She knew that Carolyn wasn’t sleeping either. “I like your hair,” Carolyn murmured. “It’s so soft.”

Therese sighed when Carolyn’s fingers started to massage her scalp. Her body still felt like it was in flames and she couldn’t understand that she had walked on this earth for more than twenty years without knowing anything about this. “Carolyn?” she asked timidly. “Does your husband do this with you?”

Carolyn kissed Therese’s hairline. “No,” she said simply. “Not this. But of course he showed me what he wanted from me.”

The idea that the Earl was doing with Carolyn what they had just done made Therese sick to her stomach. Even though she genuinely wished Carolyn a good life, it felt good that Carolyn didn’t seem too eager after the nights with her husband. “Do you do it often?”

“Not so much anymore fortunately.”

Since Therese’s mind was clouded with jealousy, it took her a while until she understood what Carolyn had just said. “And before?” she probed cautiously.

Carolyn hesitated. “You know he wanted a son.”

Therese waited for Carolyn to continue, but when she didn’t, Therese asked a second time. “How often?”

“Several times a day.”

“Oh God.” Carolyn’s words made Therese’s stomach turn and she fumbled for her hand under the blanket. “Did he hurt you?”

“Of course.” Carolyn’s voice was emotionless as if she was talking about somebody else. “But after a while you don’t feel it anymore. So it’s not that bad.”

Therese gently ran her thumb over the back of Carolyn’s hand, pondering her response. Suddenly a horrible thought occurred to her. When Harold Aird had insisted on their marital duties so regularly, then why did the couple have only one child? Carolyn had been over thirty years old when Nerinda had been born. Why had it happened so late? The resemblance between mother and daughter was unmissable, but Harold Aird’s features were more difficult to recognize in his daughter.

“Is Nerinda really yours and your husband’s child?” The question escaped Therese’s mouth before she could stop herself.

She felt Carolyn stiffen in her arms. “Yes, of course.”

The answer should have reassured Therese, but Carolyn’s shallow breathing alarmed her even more. “Is she your only child?”

Complete silence filled the barn as Therese’s question echoed in the darkness. Carolyn didn’t move and Therese regretted her question right away. The deafening silence surrounded them like a heavy cloud, until Therese couldn’t take it anymore. “So she’s not?”

Again, she didn’t get a response and Therese wished she could see Carolyn’s face. “Carolyn?” she asked anxiously.

“I can’t talk about it.” Carolyn’s voice sounded so hollow and empty that Therese could barely recognize it.

“That’s okay.” Therese took Carolyn’s hand to her lips and kissed it. “It’s just … sometimes it’s difficult to carry a secret all alone. I know what I’m talking about.”

“You don’t know anything,” Carolyn said brusquely.

“Please … Carolyn …”

“Stop it, Therese. Please.” Carolyn pushed Therese away and turned around. In doing so, she accidentally knocked over the oil lamp which fell down on the hay with a muffled sound.

“Be careful, the oil,” Therese whispered, fumbling for the lamp. Quickly, she adjusted the lamp again.

Carolyn was out of Therese’s reach now and the distance between them felt like a thousand miles. Therese couldn’t even see where she was. She knew Carolyn was hurting, but she also knew that secrets had the power to darken the soul.

Carefully, Therese crawled closer to Carolyn, until she could touch her arm. “Please come back under the blankets,” she whispered. “You’ll get a cold.”

An eternity later, Carolyn finally started to move and slid back under the covers. Neither of them said a word as Therese stroked Carolyn’s back with slow, circling moves. Her calm was only external, though. If Nerinda had a sibling, where was it then? And why didn’t anybody know about it?

Therese turned on her back, taking Carolyn with her. She held her breath when Carolyn finally lay her head down on her chest again.

“I can hear your heartbeat,” Carolyn said softly. Her voice vibrated in Therese’s ribcage and spread over her body in waves.

“It’s only beating for you,” Therese whispered back.

“I’m sorry for snapping at you.” Carolyn slid her cold hand in Therese’s and intertwined their fingers.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Therese gave Carolyn’s hand a soft squeeze.

“I know.” Again, they went silent and Therese wondered if Carolyn was still awake. It was probably wise if she closed her eyes too but her body was still burning everywhere and she felt such a strong need to touch Carolyn again.

“Nerinda’s siblings are dead,” Carolyn said suddenly. “Or maybe they live somewhere in the gutter. Harold has never told me what he did with them.”

Therese’s heart stopped a beat at Carolyn’s voice. There was so much suppressed pain in it that Therese had to swallow several times before she could use her voice again. “Were they girls?”

“Yes.” Carolyn hid her face in Therese’s hair. “Maria and Anna,” she said quietly. “Maria was born first and then, two years later, Anna.”

“He didn’t want them?”

“No.” Carolyn unconsciously squeezed Therese’s hand so firmly that Therese clenched her teeth with pain. She was glad Carolyn couldn’t see her face. “One morning I woke up and Maria wasn’t there anymore. Harold told me that he had taken her away and wanted to spare me the details. I’m sure he …” Carolyn swallowed audibly. “It doesn’t leave any traces, you know.”

Therese nodded silently. She was furious, but she knew that her feelings would only scare Carolyn away. So she stayed silent and waited for Carolyn to continue.

“Two years later the same happened with Anna.” Carolyn seemed to be far away, like in a different world, and Therese pressed her slender body tightly against her own, hoping, Carolyn could feel somehow that she was still there. “When Nerinda was born, I did everything to protect her,” Carolyn continued. “I revolted against him and fought for her. And eventually he gave in.”

Therese shook her head in disbelief. Was that the reason why the crib death seemed to happen more often in aristocratic families? How could anybody do something like this? Harold Aird probably didn’t even consider himself a murderer. Babies seemed to be no human beings for him, just little things with the right or wrong gender, like kittens or puppies. “Do you think Nerinda is still in danger?”

“No.” Carolyn shook her head. “As soon as she was able to smile at him, he started to bond with her. He loves his daughter. He really does.”

Therese’s head was swimming. How would it be to lose a child? The idea was beyond Therese’s imagination. She felt powerless and helpless in view of the horror Carolyn had had to go through. “Have you …” she asked haltingly. “Have you ever tried to find them?”

“No.” Carolyn shook her head. “I just hope they didn’t have to suffer.”

“I’m so sorry, Carolyn.” Therese wished she had a magic cure to take this heavy burden from her. How do you live with somebody who took your children away, who was probably even responsible for their death? The contact between Carolyn and her husband was by no means loveless. On the contrary, the Airds had a reputation of having a good marriage. How was this possible? How could Carolyn even stand this man’s closeness? Therese’s only explanation was that she had buried everything so deep in her soul as if it had never happened. She had apparently pushed it in the last corner of her being, and maybe this was the only way she could get up in the morning and live her life.

Had Carolyn ever considered leaving her husband? But where would she go? Clearly, she wouldn’t leave Nerinda with him. So a monastery was out of question and Therese couldn’t think of any other place to go. She couldn’t live in the woods like Lady Marian after all, and Therese wasn’t Robin Hood either. She wasn’t even able to shoot a rabbit.

“I wish I could kidnap you,” she whispered into Carolyn’s ear. “Then we would travel around the world, you as a doctor and I as a portrait painter.”

Carolyn’s entire body was still stiff and her breathing so shallow that Therese had to get her out of her trance somehow. She started to place small kisses on her body to bring it back to life. First on her face, then on her neck, on her shoulders, on her chest, on her stomach, on her thighs, she tried to reach every single cell of Carolyn’s body, and eventually Carolyn started to stir.

“Or you will put that green gown on again and we’ll move to Paris with Nerinda,” she muttered in Therese’s neck.

“No woman would be so stupid to travel without male company.”

“And no woman would be so stupid to travel with a company that isn’t her husband.”

“I know.” Therese sighed from the bottom of her heart. “I just wish I could do something.”

“You can.” Carolyn ran her fingers over Therese’s arm and kissed her shoulder. “Love me.”

The gentle touch caused goosebumps on Therese’s body. Stronger than ever she felt the need to forget everything around her, and to make Carolyn forget everything around her. Only the two of them should exist. Nothing else. At least for this one night.

Two times they loved each other again that night, the last time just before the sun rose and Carolyn had to go back to the house. With great reluctance, Therese inflamed the lamp again so that Carolyn could find her cloak and slide into her nightgown again.

“I want you to leave early in the morning,” Carolyn said when Therese handed her the lamp. “Without saying goodbye. Harold doesn’t know that you’re still here.”

Therese took Carolyn’s face in both hands, pulling her into a last, desperate kiss. “I love you,” she whispered. “I will never forget you.”

Carolyn reached for her hands and pulled them away from her face. “We have to be strong now,” she said almost sternly. One last time she kissed Therese’s forehead before she climbed down the ladder again. The light of the lamp gradually got weaker, Therese heard the squeaking of the door, then she was alone in the dark.






* * *





Therese left the loft when the first sun rays brightened the barn and she could see the steps of the ladder. She carefully wiped away all traces of the night, folded the blankets and put them back in the stable.

A stable boy who was already cleaning the boxes brought her Eddy’s horse and the one-horse carriage and Therese left before the sun rose over the treetops. Already in the carriage, she cast a last glance at the front door of the Essex House before Becky broke into a trot.

The way back to Sudbury was almost unbearable. Therese’s mind was in a haze, she felt numb and empty and didn’t want anything but to hide somewhere in a cave and never come out again. She didn’t see the red tulips at the roadside, nor the first grain that bravely fought its way out of the ground.

Without saying anything, she put some coins on Eddy’s table when she brought him his horse back and helped him to pull it back into the stable. As usual, Eddy didn’t say much either, so he just gave her his hand to tell her goodbye.

Therese hadn’t even entered her parents’ house when Eda and Martha already fired questions at her. If the Earl had been satisfied with the portrait. If he had paid Therese well enough. If Therese had given the Countess Beth’s regards. And her mother wanted to know if Therese had cleared up the misunderstanding with the Countess.

Therese responded to all questions short and crisp and then took her easel under her arm to visit the old chestnut that she had started to paint the other day. She loved the strong, broad branches of the tree and couldn’t wait to delve into her work and leave reality behind.

But today her painting failed and Therese collapsed into the grass, fighting back her tears. She felt too full or too empty inside to draw a single decent line. So she trotted back to the house and lay down on the bed in her chamber until she finally fell asleep.

At breakfast the next morning, she told her family that she would leave as soon as Beth was well enough. Nobody was surprised about her announcement because everybody knew that she couldn’t stay in Sudbury for very much longer. At least the money that the Earl had given Therese was enough to give her and her family three comfortable months.

Nonetheless, Therese depended on new commissions and decided to travel to Munich, where a Duke wanted to be portrayed while hunting with his friends. Since he preferred a painting in the spring to one in the winter, there was still a chance that he hadn’t assigned anyone else to it.

One week after Therese’s announcement, her neighbor Henry told her that Charles I had actually established a new parliament. The news made Therese wonder how many honorable men might be sitting in the House of Lords who had secretly killed their own children, just because they hadn’t been boys. The idea alone made her stomach churn and she forced herself not to think about it any further.

Therese stayed two more weeks in Sudbury, hoping against all reason she would hear from Carolyn. But of course that didn’t happen. It was over. Carolyn wasn’t ready to take any risks. She was trapped in her golden cage and there was nothing Therese could do about it.

Yet, every day that passed without a message from Carolyn deepened Therese’s pain, and when she set out for Germany she corded up her heart like a bundle she would take along her journeys – and with it her memories of Carolyn Aird and their night together. She would guard it like a treasure and nobody would ever know about her true longings and dreams, and that they had come true once, in a dark barn in a loft.

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BeitragVerfasst: Sa 22. Jul 2017, 18:05 
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Chapter 11



Rome, May 4, 1655


“Michelangelo needed more than four years to complete the ceiling.” Cardinal Marcus guided Therese through the long aisle of the Sistine Chapel. “You’ve probably noticed that the mural paintings are done by other artists. Otherwise, he never would have finished his work.”

With a nod, he allowed Therese to step closer and she studied the opulent mural paintings. Botticelli, Rosselini, Perugino – all of them had set themselves a monument for eternity in this chapel. Her own paintings felt utterly inferior and meaningless at the sight of this celestial opus and she wondered if she could ever do the Vatican’s commission justice.

Before the new pope Alexander VII had been chosen, a long, fierce power struggle had rocked the Vatican, which had damaged its reputation so much that now the Cardinals made great effort to present to the people a dignified and working clergy. Some paintings of scenes from the Vatican were part of that mission and Therese had been asked to portray a session of Cardinals.

She had already met Cardinal Marcus two times in order to discuss the details and now the day of the Cardinal meeting had arrived. Undoubtedly, it was a huge honor for Therese to be allowed to be present at the session, even though it would be brief and it was strictly forbidden to utter a peep. “Don’t forget that you only have one day, Mr. Belivet,” the Cardinal reminded her, guiding her to another building. “We’ll provide you some human models later, but you have to create everything else from memory.”

“It’s an honor, Your Eminence.” Therese nervously took off her hat and pressed it against her chest as the Cardinal stopped in front of a golden door. After his knocking, somebody opened from the inside and the open door revealed an ocean of purple gowns.

“Our guest won’t bother us for long,” Cardinal Marcus informed the attendees, taking a seat on the only vacant chair.

It was an overwhelming sight to see all the Cardinals in their gowns but Therese tried not to be impressed too much. She had to work quickly and effectively and needed to memorize the scene as precisely as possible. She wouldn’t be able to draw more than a few sketches and would rely almost completely on her memory later.

While Therese was drawing line after line, the room was filled with an uncomfortable silence. Neither of the Cardinals uttered a word, which made it unmistakably clear that she was a disturbing factor and obviously unworthy of any conversation.

Not even two hours later, Therese stood on St. Peter’s Square again and started to walk home by foot. It was a warm day in Rome and the towers of the city gleamed in the sunlight. Therese would have loved to make a detour along the Tiber but her right knee had started to hurt on longer walks lately and, moreover, she carried the cumbersome sketches under her arm.

Therese loved this city with its old walls and liked to explore areas she hadn’t seen before. On all of her journeys, there hadn’t been many places where she had felt as comfortable and so she had decided to settle in Rome several years ago.

Since Therese had left England fifteen years ago, she had never returned to her homeland again, even though she had often planned to visit her family. After parts of the parliament had decided to take action against the tyrannical King, a Civil War had broken out in England. An Englishman who Therese had accidentally met at the market in Rome had told her that Harold Aird had been one of the leaders of the revolution. He had been one of the people who had made sure that Charles I had been executed for high treason.

Therese had stayed in Munich most of the time during the war, but eventually unrest had broken out there as well, which had forced her to move away. Almost all of Europe was embroiled in the turmoil of war and power games of different dynasties and one never knew where another war would break out next. So Therese had decided, after brief stays in Amsterdam and later Venice, to move to Rome.

The mailing route was cut off during war and Therese’s connection to her family had been interrupted for several years. There had been no way to know if her mother and sisters were safe and whether they were alive at all. Only years later one of her letters had made it to Sudbury and, after several months, Therese had received a long letter from her sister Beth, who wrote that their mother had unexpectedly died the previous year. Their father’s weaving mill had gone downhill quickly after that because Therese’s sisters hadn't succeeded to save the mill a second time.

Fortunately, two men from Sudbury were interested in Eda and Martha. Edward and Carl, both farmers in the North of Sudbury, were decent men who Therese had already known from childhood. Therefore, she had been relieved to read that Eda and Martha had married them eventually.

Meanwhile, Eda and Martha worked on their husbands’ farms. It was hard work but they were doing well and Carl had even allowed Eda to get Beth to their farm as well. Therese’s youngest sister had recovered from her pneumonia long ago and didn’t shy away from the hard work. Only Meggy was still unmarried, but she loved her job as a maid and didn’t seem to want it any other way.

When Therese lay in her bed at night, she often felt homesick and missed her sisters. For some reason, something had always happened every time she had considered traveling back to England. Sometimes it had been a commission that she couldn’t postpone, sometimes there were unrests and riots somewhere that prevented her from going. After all this time, Therese was wondering whether her sisters still remembered what she looked like. Unlike her, they hadn’t the possibility to capture people in paintings.

Therese’s life in Rome was uncomplicated and quiet, though she often felt lonely. She still didn’t have any friends because the risk that somebody would discover her secret was just too high. One day, a stray dog had run towards her and had found a new home at Therese’s place. She had named him Dannie and he followed her everywhere. The dog did her soul good and comforted her in her darkest hours.

Dannie sat on her lap when everything in her life felt wrong. Dannie nudged her with his wet nose when she couldn’t stop the tears running down her face. And Dannie lay on her feet when she thought about Carolyn Aird and cursed God, because he let it happen that people loved each other only to lose each other again.

Yet, Therese had to admit that her encounter with Carolyn Aird had changed her painting style fundamentally and that it was this new style in the first place that had made her so popular as an artist. It was said that Theodore Belivet’s paintings radiated a great, quiet strength, a mysterious passion like a subliminal quake under the rigid rituals of the aristocratic life.

Therese was in the happy position to be able to select her commissions herself by now and the painting of a Cardinal’s session had been a fantastic opportunity. Though she wasn’t very keen to advertise for the clergy, the subject itself was a real challenge. Now she had been given only eight weeks to create the painting and would probably need every single day.

As soon as Therese opened the door to her house, Dannie ran towards her, waggling his tail and pitching into the carrots she threw at his feet as a reward for the long wait. After she made herself some soup, she climbed up the stairs to her atelier in order to start working on the new painting.

Her atelier, as Therese called it, was the biggest room in the house and when she opened the window, she could look down at her neighbor Elena’s sheep and goats, which liked to occasionally run away and then had to be caught again by Elena, mostly with Therese’s active support.

Three paintings hung on the wall opposite the window that Therese had created only recently. The painting on the left showed her mother, the painting in the middle her four sisters Meggy, Eda, Martha and Beth, and the third painting was a portrait of Carolyn Aird.

The portrait was the youngest of numerous paintings Therese had created of her, but it had become one of the most beautiful. It showed Carolyn with her cloak and the oil lamp in her hand, just as she had stood in front of Therese in the loft. In the background, one could see piles of hay and the edge of the ladder. The light of the oil lamp illuminated half of Carolyn’s face, while the other half was left in the shadow – an allegory of their situation at that time.

During the first years after her departure from England, Therese had painted so many pictures of Carolyn that she had stopped counting. Each and every one was like medicine for a great wound. They eased the pain, even though it never completely went away. But over the years it had started to pale, faded more into the background, and meanwhile Therese was satisfied with her life again. She had a good time in Rome and she didn’t have to worry about money. She was more in demand than ever and much too busy to create paintings just for herself anymore.

Since then, she had only seldom painted a portrait of Carolyn, but one or two times a year she allowed herself to think of that period of her life. The painting helped her to remember, to lose herself again in the feeling of happiness she had felt back then. She had never tried to sell one of the paintings – they were private treasures she wouldn’t give away for the world. Even though she often felt alone in her life, it was still a solace to remember that there once had been a person who had seen who she really was.

The days in May were already so uncomfortably hot that Therese was almost glad she would mostly stay inside the house for the next weeks. Three times a day she would allow herself a break; the rest of the time was reserved for the Cardinal session.

Reflecting the Cardinal’s facial features from memory turned out to be more difficult than expected. At least the Vatican had allowed her to reconstruct the scene with human models, but Cardinal Marcus had made it clear that the Vatican expected an accurate, authentic portrayal of each Cardinal. The more the painting progressed, the more difficult it was for Therese to remember all the details. She had no idea if the portrait still matched with reality when she finally finished it. Although she had no intention of accepting the Vatican’s offer to paint more portraits, it had always been important to her to give her very best and to satisfy the customer.

Contrary to her fears, Cardinal Marcus seemed to be delighted with the painting – obviously Therese had captured the clergymen better than she had thought. Still, she didn’t accept his request to create more paintings for the Vatican. For more than a year, she had painted portraits nonstop and she longed to paint some landscapes and sceneries again.

The money she had earned over the last years would allow her to take a break and on her way back from the Vatican, Therese dreamed of all the things she could do in the next weeks. Maybe she would travel to Verona or to Naples to paint the sailing ships on the water.

Therese was so deeply in thought that she would have almost passed her house if she hadn’t heard Dannie’s loud barking. Why was he so upset? Was Rosanna in her house? Elena’s six year old daughter loved to visit Therese, especially because she loved playing with Dannie.

“Rosanna?” Therese shouted as she stepped through her front door. Dannie was already running down the stairs and almost knocked her down as he greeted her. “What’s going on, my boy?” she asked, ruffling his fur. It happened only rarely that he greeted her like this.

All of a sudden, Therese heard a noise and when she raised her head she saw a woman standing at the stair head. A woman that looked so much like Carolyn Aird that Therese had to grab the banister for support.

The woman was about nineteen or twenty years old and her hair was darker than Carolyn’s, but yet, the resemblance was unmissable. Her elegant, yellow dress with the white sleeves was much too expensive by Roman standards, as well as the white, curved hat that covered her dark blonde hair.

“Excuse me, Mr. Belivet. Your neighbor Elena let me in,” the young lady apologized with a curtsy. “She said she didn’t know when you would be back and it would be okay to wait here.”

Suddenly it was unbearably hot in the house and Therese unbuttoned her collar, leaning against the cool wall of the staircase. “Nerinda?” she asked in disbelief.

“You recognized me,” Nerinda stated with a smile and carefully walked down the stairs. Her elegant shoes were anything but appropriate for Roman staircases. “Do you have a moment for me, Mr. Belivet?” She offered Therese her hand for a kiss.

“Yes, of course, my lady.” Therese tried to get her limbs to move and guided Nerinda to her living room. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Yes, please.” Nerinda took a seat and curiously looked around. “It’s not easy to get some good tea in Rome, I noticed.” She watched Therese in the kitchen.

“I know what you mean,” Therese confirmed. “I needed to get used to that, too.” Her fingers felt so numb that she almost dropped the two mugs as she carried them to the table. “How are you, my lady?” she asked, not sure if she really wanted to know.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Nerinda responded with an open smile that remembered Therese painfully of her mother. “I got married a year ago and my husband and I are living in Paris now.”

“Your husband is French?”

“Yes, he is a General in the French Army.”

“I see.” Therese wondered if Harold Aird had arranged that his daughter marry a French General. Whatever he’d had in mind, Nerinda seemed to be happy with her husband, which was of course the main thing.

The water was finally boiling and Therese poured Nerinda some tea into her mug. “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” Nerinda said after she had taken a sip from the tea.

“Well, I guess you’d like to call on my services.” Therese didn’t want to make the young woman sense her uneasiness. Portraying Nerinda was the last thing she wanted to do. Seeking refuge by creating nostalgic paintings was something entirely different than portraying Carolyn’s daughter in the present. Her resemblance to her mother was just too striking, even though her hair was darker and her mouth and nose a bit smaller than Carolyn’s. But the eye area, the high forehead and even some gestures were the same.

“No, that’s not the reason.” Nerinda stroked Dannie’s head when the dog snuggled up against her. “I have a rather unusual request ... Therese.”

The mug in Therese’s hand fell to the ground with a thud and shattered into a thousand pieces.

“I’m sorry.” Nerinda jumped up from her chair and started to help Therese pick up the broken pieces. But Therese pushed her away.

“Be careful, you’re going to cut yourself!” Therese cursed when she injured her own hand. “Wait here, I’ll take care of the shards,” she muttered and left the room to get a broom. What on earth was going on here? Why did Nerinda know her real name? Had Carolyn sent her?

When Therese came back with the broom, Nerinda had sat down on her chair again. “Do you want me to get a new mug for you?”

“No, thank you.” Therese swept the floor without looking at her visitor even once. “So, why did you come, my lady?” she asked after she had brought the pile of shards to the kitchen.

“I’d like to discuss something with you.” Nerinda looked at her hands with embarrassment. “And I’m here to ask for your help.”

“I don’t think I’m able to help you with anything, my lady.” Therese went back to her chair and wrapped a cloth around her bleeding hand.

“Have I done anything wrong?” Nerinda asked regretfully. “I’m sorry if I upset you.”

“No, it’s okay.” Therese knew very well that she wasn’t fair to the young woman, but she couldn’t think straight anymore. Why did Nerinda know her secret? And who else knew about it?

Nerinda waited patiently until Therese had tied a knot into her cloth with one hand. “Would you let me tell you why I’m here?” she asked eventually.

“Please, go ahead, my lady.” Therese suppressed a sigh. It was only polite to at least listen to Nerinda’s request.

Nerinda took her hat off and put it carefully on the table. “It’s a long story,” she said, running her fingers through her hair like Carolyn had often done it when she had been nervous. “I met my husband while I was visiting several hospitals in England with my mother. She knows a lot about medicine and helped to take care of the wounded during war. She’s still very welcome there.”

Nerinda hesitated for a moment as if she wasn’t sure how to continue. When she didn’t say anything, Therese decided to get a new mug – she definitely needed something to hold on to. Dannie seemed to sense her inner turmoil and nudged her cold hand with his wet snout.

“About one and half years ago I met Philippe at a hospital in Cambridge,” Nerinda continued eventually. “He was part of a delegation of French soldiers visiting English hospitals. Since then I’ve often accompanied him on his visits and eventually he proposed to me.” Nerinda averted her face, trying to regain her composure. “Although the war was long over, there were still so many injured people at the hospitals. People who lost their arms or legs or their eyesight …”

Therese ran her fingers through Dannie’s thick fur while she was listening to Nerinda’s words. She still had no idea what the young woman was getting at, but it had to be something important, otherwise Nerinda wouldn’t have come all the way from Paris. All of a sudden a thought occurred to Therese. “Is your father all right, Nerinda?”

“My father?” Nerinda raised her head, visibly confused. “Haven’t you heard that he died?”

“No, I didn’t know that.” Therese saw the pain in Nerinda’s eyes and wondered how her mother might be doing. Notwithstanding that she hadn’t seemed to love him he had been her husband after all. “I’m really sorry, Nerinda,” Therese said with heartfelt sympathy. She had hated Harold Aird all these years, but he had been Nerinda’s father and Therese knew what it meant to lose a father at a young age. “I was so far away from England during the war that I didn’t really know what was going on most of the time,” she explained softly.

“It wasn’t the war.” Nerinda nodded gratefully as Therese handed her a handkerchief. “He suddenly became very ill.” She blew her nose. “Since I don’t have a brother, my father’s title of nobility died with him. So I’m not a Countess anymore and you can drop the formalities.”

It was on the tip of Therese’s tongue to ask Nerinda about her mother, but she was too afraid what Nerinda’s response would be.

“But that’s not why I came,” Nerinda continued. “There was a woman at a hospital in Oxford who was ill with Typhus … and … and …” Nerinda took a deep breath. “And this woman looked a lot like me.” She shot a glance at Therese who succeeded to keep a straight face. “I still remember the moment when I stood at her bed and we stared at each other. At first, I thought that maybe I had caught a disease too and was just hallucinating. But I didn’t have a fever … and Philippe noticed the resemblance, too.”

“It happens that people look a lot alike.” Therese scratched Dannie between the ears. It was true that people sometimes shared a certain resemblance just by accident. There was no reason to make misleading conclusions.

“I know.” Nerinda sipped from her now cold tea and nervously folded her hands. “But I knew immediately that this resemblance wasn’t accidental. So Philippe and I started to gather information the next day.” She shyly glanced at Therese, who did her best to hide her inner unrest. “That woman is five years older than me and her name is Christine Levinson. She’s the daughter of the physician Paul Bradley and lived all of her life in Oxford. She was 16 years old when she married the apothecary Eric Levinson. By now, she has three children: two sons and a girl.”

Nerinda looked at Therese as if she expected her to say something. “So you probably know now why I’m here.” She got up from her chair and started pacing in the room. “I’m here because I believe that Christine Levinson is my sister.”

Therese shook her head vehemently. “How can you say something like that, Nerinda?” she asked almost reproachfully. “Do you have any evidence for your assumption?”

“No, but my gut’s telling me that I’m right.” Nerinda stopped in front of the table and put her hands on her chest. “I feel it deep in my heart that it’s true.” Her hands still on her chest, she looked directly at Therese. “All my childhood I sensed something was bothering my mother,” she said quietly. “I just didn’t know what it was.”

Therese held her head in her hands. She felt as if someone had ripped off a curtain and suddenly everything was there again. The night in the loft, Carolyn’s confession in the dark, her warm breath at Therese’s neck. “Why …” She cleared her throat when her voice failed. “Why don’t you ask your mother about your suspicion?”

“Because she doesn’t talk anymore.”

“She doesn’t talk anymore?” Therese blinked as bright stars started to dance before her eyes. She forced herself to breathe normally.

“It’s not that she lost her voice, if that’s what you think.” Nerinda sat down at the table again. “Somehow she talked less and less and a few years ago she almost stopped speaking at all. She still says Good morning or Good night or It will rain tomorrow. But that’s about it. She’s retreated into her house and doesn’t talk to anybody anymore, except for her servant.”

Therese swallowed hard. A part of her just wanted to get up and run away. But her legs felt like lead and relentlessly kept her on her spot.

“One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore and started to read her diaries.” Nerinda blushed to the roots of her hair. “I know it wasn’t right, I know that. But it was the only way to find out if my suspicion was correct.” She watched Therese from the corner of her eye. “That’s why I know that you’re a woman, Therese.”

Therese flinched as Dannie jumped onto her lap and tried to curl up there. He was much too big to find a comfortable position but somehow he made it and sighed softly when he rested his head on her thighs.

So Carolyn hadn’t told her daughter anything, but Nerinda had found it out on her own. Why had Carolyn chosen the darkness, the silence, the retreat? Therese had made a conscious decision for life; she had carried on and focused on the good things of life. And there was plenty.

“She mentioned you a lot in her diaries,” Nerinda said thoughtfully. “Apparently, she loved you more than anyone else in the world.”

“You, Nerinda, have always been the most important thing in the world for her.” Therese put her trembling hand onto Nerinda’s. “Don’t you ever forget that.”

“Yes, I know.” Nerinda reciprocated Therese’s soft squeeze. “But I can’t make her happy.”

“Did you find anything in the diaries that supported your theory?” Therese fought back her tears. They had to wait until Nerinda was gone.

“Just some vague hints that could also refer to something completely different.” Nerinda shook her head. “Abigail, her servant, is the only person my mother is still talking to. She told me I should ask you. She said if somebody knew anything about this it would be you.”

Therese bent over Dannie, digging her face into his soft fur. She felt like a fragile vessel right before its combustion. Hadn’t she done everything in her power to run from her past? She had moved to a different country, had never set foot on English ground again, had locked all her memories away deep inside of her and hadn’t talked to anyone about it. She had never worn a dress again, nor had she said Carolyn’s name aloud. And now her daughter was sitting right in front of her, asking questions that deserved an answer.

“Please, Therese,” Nerinda urged. “Do you know anything?”

Therese didn’t dare to look at her. What was she supposed to do now? She couldn’t reveal Carolyn’s secret. On the other hand it couldn’t be right that her daughter was suffering too now. It was bad enough that Carolyn had almost been broken by her secret.

“I’ve never had the chance to tell you …” Nerinda stood up and walked to Therese. “… that the walks along the Thames with you are one of my sweetest childhood memories.” She kneeled down in front of Therese. “I saw the painting in your atelier,” she said softly. “You’re as unhappy as my mother.”

Therese didn’t say anything but she knew that the tear in the corner of her eye betrayed her.

“Please, help me, Therese,” Nerinda pleaded. “If not for my sake, then for my mother’s sake.”

Therese gave Dannie a sign to leap down her lap and turned to Nerinda. “Your feelings were right, Nerinda,” she said with a firm voice. “Your mother has born three children.”

“I knew it.” Nerinda got up from the floor and went to the window. “I just couldn’t grab it …” She stopped dead in her tracks. “Did you just say three?” Her bottom lip trembled as Therese’s words slowly sank in. “I have two siblings?”

Therese nodded silently. “I’m sorry, Nerinda.”

“So everything was a lie.” Nerinda shook her head in disbelief. “My entire childhood was a lie.”

“Nerinda,” Therese warned her. “That still doesn’t necessarily mean that this Christine Levinson is your sister.”

“What happened?” Nerinda was close to tears. “Tell me what happened.”

“Only your father could answer that.” Therese wished she could tell Nerinda more, but Harold Aird had taken his secret to his grave. “Your mother is convinced that both of your siblings are dead.”

“They were girls, weren’t they?” Nerinda said with a tiny voice. “He always wanted a son, so that he could bequest his title. He already told me that when I was three years old.” She went back to the table and nervously ran her fingers over her hat, pondering Therese’s words. “Why am I alive then?” she asked quietly.

Therese reached for Nerinda’s hand. “Because your mother protected you with all her might.”

Nerinda nodded quietly and wiped a tear from her face. “I know my father loved me. Yet, he had always made me feel wrong. Philippe was the first man who taught me how nice it was to be a woman.”

“What are you going to do now, Nerinda?”

“Now that I know that my suspicions weren’t just pure imagination, I will try to talk to Paul Bradley.” Nerinda put her hat on. “Maybe I can find out if he’s really Christine Levinson’s father or not.”

“Don’t you think he will throw you out of his house before you even have finished your sentence?” Therese considered Nerinda’s plan pretty naïve.

Nerinda took a last sip of her cold tea. “Will you help me, Therese?”

Therese turned away from her and carried the two mugs back to the kitchen. Of course she wanted to help Nerinda. She cared for the young woman, after all. But would she be able to cope with following Carolyn’s traces? The past was suddenly in the middle of the room and with it all the feelings she had suppressed for so long.

But did she have anything to lose? She had lost Carolyn already long ago and if Nerinda’s venture would be able to bring some light into her mother’s darkened soul that would be reason enough to at least try it. “Yes,” Therese said, offering Nerinda her hand. “I’ll go with you.”

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Chapter 12



Later in the evening, a messenger knocked at Therese’s door with an invitation for dinner from Nerinda and her husband Philippe. The couple was staying at a friend’s house who was out of town for the next two days so they had the entire house to themselves. Philippe Audrey was a tall, polite man with dark eyebrows and a thin face whose attitude revealed his profession. They drank two bottles of red wine together and during the evening Philippe turned out to be a pleasant and considerate husband with excellent manners who knew very well how to fill his wife’s every wish.

At first, Therese had some trouble understanding him because of his strong French accent but his English was flawless and after she had listened to him for a while, she understood almost everything he said. His somehow singing style of speaking made him even more charming and likeable.

While they were emptying glass after glass together, they made lots of plans, only to reject them later. In the end, they decided to leave in two days, if Therese was able to make that possible. She wasn’t prepared for a long trip and needed to take care of several things before their leaving. Luckily, her neighbor Elena was used to looking after Therese’s house during her travels and agreed to take care of everything.

Therese was glad that she had just finished her painting for the Vatican, so she actually managed to be ready after two days. Philippe owned a comfortable carriage with two fast horses, but for some reason Therese found the journey unusually weary. Philippe had suggested they could stay in Paris for a few days and Therese was more than grateful for the break. Usually she loved traveling and was quite used to all the inconveniences. But for some reason, Therese’s back still hurt in Paris for days. Nevertheless, she enjoyed walking along the Seine with Dannie every day and wasn’t very keen on continuing their journey.

Nerinda didn’t feel well either but unlike Therese, she couldn’t wait to get to Oxford. As a consequence of her impatience, they left Paris after four days and from there they took the shortest route to the English Channel. During the crossing, Therese became seasick for the very first time in her life, but it was nothing compared to Nerinda’s miserable state. She emptied her stomach a lot more often than she could eat something.

Even though it felt like the crossing had lasted forever, they finally stood on solid ground again. Oxford wasn’t far away anymore and Philippe steered the carriage through green hills and valleys. Much to her surprise, Therese realized how much she had missed England. She closed her eyes and listened quietly to the familiar sounds of crickets and birds and bees.

The typical landscape and its smells brought scenes from Therese’s childhood back to life but also memories of Carolyn Aird. Therese was still not sure whether she wanted to see her or not. Maybe it would be a chance to finally leave the events at the Essex House behind – it was still hard to understand how a few weeks had been able to change her life forever and how a single person could have had such an impact on her entire being. If she was honest with herself, she had never been able to really close this chapter, so this might be her only chance to do that.

On the other hand, it was often wiser to just leave things as they were and not to reopen old wounds. It had been Therese’s strategy for the last fifteen years and she had succeeded more or less. It felt still safer to do it that way. She knew the outcome after all and wouldn’t need to change anything.

What did Carolyn look like now? Had she changed a lot? When Nerinda talked about her, the Carolyn Therese had known was sometimes hard to recognize and Therese wondered if she would even meet the same person – if she decided to meet Carolyn, which she hadn’t yet.

In her imagination, Carolyn was still exactly the way she had been when Therese had left the Essex House fifteen years ago. It was painful to think of these days now and in Therese grew a nervousness she hadn’t felt for years. Not once in all these years had she felt a physical need or desire for another person. It had always been only Carolyn she had missed. And suddenly the object of her desire was so close, and yet beyond reach. It would be so easy to just make a small detour and knock on her door, but the precious memories that Therese had saved inside like a treasure could possibly be destroyed forever.

The war had changed England palpably. They passed many deserted houses, even completely destroyed villages where nobody wanted to live anymore. The revolution had freed the land of an unpopular king and had turned it into a Republic. It had also left painful marks though that were still visible six years after the end of the war.

Occasionally, the three of them stopped to rest and the citizens told them stories about Oliver Cromwell, one of the revolution’s leaders. Now he ruled as a lord protector over the country and obviously the people worshiped and admired him. The name Harold Aird was mentioned several times as well because he had joined Oliver Cromwell and helped to defeat the King’s troops. Most people seemed to consider Oliver Cromwell a hero who had fought for the liberation of his country. But Therese heard also disapproving comments from citizens loyal to the King, who called Cromwell a murderer and a traitor and were convinced that England would definitely go downhill now.

Therese was appalled by how much had happened during her absence. If she had known how bloody und brutal the conflicts in London had been, she would have been even more worried about her family. Therese had bought presents in Paris for each of her four sisters and couldn’t wait to surprise them.

Therese wondered what Beth might look like by now. Judging from her sisters’ letters, all four of them were doing well, but Therese wasn’t sure if they just didn’t want her to worry about them. Now she would be able to judge the situation with her own eyes. And maybe, if she mustered up the courage, she would also visit the rundown weaving mill. Maybe there was a way to renovate her parents’ house and sell it to a nice family.

“Mr. Belivet.” Philippe’s voice pulled Therese out of her reverie. “Would you be so kind to hand me the waterskin?”

“Yes, of course.” Therese picked up the waterskin between her feet and gave it to Nerinda, who forwarded it to Philippe. “We’re almost out of water,” she whispered to Therese. “I almost drank all of it.”

“Maybe it’s the salty air.” Therese smiled. “Let’s get some water at the next tavern.”

“I need to tell you something.” Nerinda shot a quick glance at Philippe and slipped closer to Therese. “I believe I’m with child,” she whispered into Therese’s ear.

“Really?” Therese whispered back. “Are you sure?”

“I guess so.” Nerinda’s blue eyes beamed. “But don’t say anything to Philippe. I want to be really sure first.”

“I wish you all the luck in the world.” Therese squeezed Nerinda’s hand. If Nerinda’s suspicion was correct, Carol would become a grandmother soon. The idea warmed Therese’s heart. The Carolyn she had known back then would be a wonderful grandmother. Yet, Therese had never met the new Carolyn. “Is your mother still living in the Essex House?” Therese asked Nerinda.

“No.” Nerinda shook her head. “When my father died, we had to leave the house. But he had left my mother enough money, so she was able to buy a nice house in Westminster. I lived there until I moved to Paris with Philippe.” Nerinda took the empty waterskin from Philippe’s hands and put it back between their feet. “Will you visit her?”

Therese shrugged. “I don’t know yet.”

Nerinda looked at her intently. “I don’t need to tell you that she would be overjoyed to see you.”

Therese didn’t respond. Nerinda was still too young to understand that some things were more complicated than they looked. Some things that looked like an unbearable condition at first sight were actually necessary to maintain a fragile balance.

“Anyway,” Nerinda said when Therese didn’t say anything. “You’ll still have some time to think about it.”

“I can see the first houses of London,” Philippe shouted in front of them. “We’ll stay here overnight and leave for Oxford early in the morning.” He stopped at a tavern and jumped from the carriage to help Nerinda get out of it, too.

The dinner at the tavern was better than expected and the beds quite comfortable. Yet, Therese couldn’t fall asleep that night. It was simply too disturbing and upsetting to see all the familiar places and houses again. When Therese lay alone in the dark, an overwhelming wistfulness overcame her, but there was nothing she could do about it except wait for this night to be over.

As Therese stepped out of the tavern, Nerinda was already sitting on the bench of the carriage, waiting impatiently for their leaving. It took them about seven hours to Oxford, which was good because Therese noticed that Nerinda didn’t really have a plan of what she would say to Paul Bradley. She couldn’t just knock on the man’s door and ask him if he was sure that his children were his own. After a long discussion between the three of them on the way to Oxford, Nerinda decided to just meet Mr. Bradley without asking him any compromising questions.

The doctor’s house wasn’t difficult to find because everybody seemed to know the way. Finally they stood in front of a small, tree-lined house and Nerinda asked Philippe and Therese to come with her. Dannie wasn’t happy to stay in the carriage, but after a disapproving bark he gave in and curled up in the carriage.

Nerinda knocked so timidly at the plain front door that Therese was certain nobody could have heard her. But only a moment later a small man with a round, bald head opened the door and raised an eyebrow when he saw Nerinda. “Good afternoon, Mr. Bradley,” Nerinda curtseyed politely. “We’re sorry to bother you …”

“I know why you’re here,” he interrupted her and asked all three of them to come in before they even had the chance to introduce themselves.

Therese and Nerinda exchanged a discreet look while the man led them into the house. “That’s creepy,” Nerinda whispered and snuggled up against Philippe, who gallantly put his arm around her shoulders.

“Christine?” Mr. Bradley shouted, stopping at the staircase. “Would you please come down for a moment?”

Shortly afterwards a young woman came downstairs who indeed looked a lot like Nerinda. Her hair was brighter and her face somewhat rounder than Nerinda’s but she had the same high forehead and blue-grey eyes. “Nerinda Audrey?” the young woman asked shyly.

“Christine Levinson?” Nerinda clung to her husband’s arm.

Mr. Bradley cleared his throat. “Let’s have a seat, please.” He guided them to the living room. “If I’m not mistaken, you are Harold Aird’s daughter, aren’t you?” He turned to Nerinda, who nodded dumbstruck. “That wasn’t very hard. Your family is well-known in this area.” He smiled, pointing at Philippe and Therese with his head. “And these gentlemen are …”

“Philippe Audrey, Nerinda’s husband.” Philippe nodded politely at the doctor.

“Theodore Belivet, Sir.” Therese took a bow. “I’m a friend.”

“Very well.” Mr. Bradley asked his wife to bring him a bottle of whiskey and gave everyone a glass. “Welcome to our home.” He raised his glass. “So what gives me the honor of your visit?”

Nerinda looked at Philippe for help, who looked at Therese. “You don’t seem surprised by our visit…,” Nerinda said eventually and left the last part of the sentence hanging in the air.

“That’s right.” Mr. Bradley sipped from his glass, without noticing that he was the only one drinking. “I know that my daughter Christine met you at a hospital about one and a half years ago,” he explained. “I think my daughter was at least as surprised as you were.” He patted Christine’s back who had taken a seat next to him. “And now that I can see the resemblance between the two of you, I understand how you must have felt.”

Nerinda put her glass back on the table before she spilled the whiskey. Looking for help, she looked at Therese, who nodded at her encouragingly. “Christine told you about our encounter?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yes, she did.” Mr. Bradley cleared his throat again. “Well, she had to fully recover first, of course. But one day she came to our house and told me what had happened at the hospital. You’re lucky, by the way, that she’s accidentally with us right now.”

Therese shot a glance at the pale young woman who had sat down next to her father. She had crossed her arms before her chest but Therese could see her inner turmoil. She was at least as shaken as Nerinda.

“My wife and I had never felt it necessary to tell our daughter that we couldn't have children,” Mr. Bradley continued, his voice trembling slightly. “But now our daughter demanded an answer to her question why she looked so much like that other woman.”

Nerinda turned white as a sheet and Philippe took her hand. “Do you have a glass of water for her?” he asked Mrs. Bradley who had just come through the door.

“Of course, Sir.” Mrs. Bradley went quickly out of the room again and came back with a glass of water. She patted Nerinda’s shoulder when she gave it to her. “You should drink something, my dear.”

Nerinda mechanically took the glass, without taking a sip from it. “We’re really sisters?”

When nobody said anything, Therese got up from her chair and walked to Mr. Bradley. She wasn’t used to being proactive but Mr. Bradley’s vague hints seem to make things rather worse for Nerinda. “Would you please be so kind and tell us what had happened back then?”

It was obviously difficult for Mr. Bradley to comply with her request. He emptied his glass with one gulp and poured himself a second glass. “The Earl of Essex and I had known each other for ages,” he started after he had also emptied his second glass. “I was a young doctor in the army and the Earl and I fought several battles together.”

He reached for his glass again, but put it back on the table as his wife frowned at him. “One day the Earl came to me and thrust a small bundle into my hands,” he continued. “Help me get this out of my hair, he said. “Do whatever you think is right with it. Only then it occurred to me that there was a human being inside of that bundle, a little girl who was a burden to him. I didn’t know what to do with it and discussed the situation with my wife.” He smiled at his wife who stood next to Christine. “Since we already knew that we couldn’t have children on our own, we decided to keep the baby and raise it.” He leant towards Christine, squeezing her hand. “We’ve always loved Christine like our own daughter.”

“Didn’t anybody get suspicious when your wife suddenly had a child?” Philippe asked skeptically.

“Yes, there were rumors.” Mr. Bradley nodded. “Hence, we decided to move to Oxford where nobody knew us.” He wiped some beads of sweat from his forehead. “I didn’t even know if the girl was the Earl’s own child or if he had given it to me from somebody else. These things happen more often among lords than one might think. Later, when the Earl and his family were invited to festivals in the city, I noticed the resemblance between Christine and the Earl’s wife, and also the resemblance between the two children.” He pointed with his head at Christine and Nerinda. “So I have known you a lot longer than you have known me, Mrs. Audrey.”

Nerinda listened to him with a shell-shocked expression. “Have you …” She turned to Christine. “Have you never felt the need to meet your real … I mean … to meet the woman who delivered you?”

“Well, I’ve considered it …” Even Christine’s voice resembled Carolyn’s and listening to it, a shiver ran down Therese’s spine. “But I didn’t want to hurt my mother.” Christine shyly glanced at her mother who took her into her arms.

“My darling child.” Mrs. Bradley sighed. “I can’t deny that it would feel kind of strange, but I would never get in your way. If this is important for you, Christine, then you should do it.” She released Christine from her grip. “I’m sure I’ll learn to deal with it. Maybe I should even meet Lady Aird myself one day.”

Nerinda had listened to Mrs. Bradley with great interest. “Have you ever met my … our father?” she asked Christine.

“Yes, he visited my parents once or twice, when I was really young,” Christine confirmed. “But I had no idea that it was my father, and he had no idea that I was his child. I don’t even know if he noticed me back then.” She took a sip from her glass, grimacing as she put it back on the table. “Why did you wait so long?” she asked Nerinda. “It’s been a year and a half since we’ve met.”

Nerinda blushed. “I tried not to think about it,” she responded quietly. “I didn’t believe my father would do something like that.”

Christine went silent, smoothing her dress deep in thought. “Yes,” she said eventually. “It feels weird to be related to Harold Aird. I mean, he’s a hero and all that. But he’s also …”

“… a child murderer?” Nerinda completed softly.

“I’m sure the Earl didn’t see it like that,” Mr. Bradley defended his old friend. “He wasn’t a villain. He was just …” He searched for the right words. “… practical.”

But his words didn’t make anything better. Everybody in the room knew that the Earl of Essex had been a man with high moral standards, but apparently he hadn’t considered girls full human beings.

Philippe put his arm around his wife and for a while an awkward silence filled the room. Suddenly Christine rose from her chair and walked towards Nerinda. “I like the idea of having a sister,” she said, blushing slightly. “I hope you don’t find it too awful.”

Nerinda raised her head and put her hand on Christine’s arm. “Not at all,” she said, trying to smile. “When I was a child, I always wished I had a sister.”

Christine tentatively put her hand on Nerinda’s. “I wanted to search for you, but then I heard that you had moved to France.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Nerinda nodded. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, no matter how much I tried.”

“Did you come all the way from Paris just to meet us?” Mrs. Bradley shook her head. “It must be really important to you.”

“Yes, it is.” Nerinda brushed a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand. “And aside from that, my mother doesn’t deserve to think that her daughters are dead.”

“Her daughters?” Christine shot a questioning glance at her father who avoided her gaze in embarrassment.

“Mr. Bradley,” Philippe said sternly. “What happened to the second girl the Earl had given you?”

Mr. Bradley’s voice faltered as he turned to his daughter. “I’m sorry, my dear. I didn’t tell you this because I didn’t want to hurt you even more.”

Therese looked at Christine with worry but her face didn’t reveal anything. Another thing that reminded Therese of her mother.

Mr. Bradley nipped on his empty glass as all eyes in the room looked at him. “The truth is that I don’t know,” he said slowly. “It’s true that there had been a second girl and even the Earl believed that this child wasn’t alive anymore. I never told him what I had done with it and he never asked me.”

Nobody in the room spoke as Mr. Bradley nervously ran his hand over his bald head. “I gave it to another doctor, a friend of mine, because I just couldn’t hurt the baby. I guess he… well… got rid of it but I don’t know for sure.”

“Which doctor?” All eyes turned to Christine who furiously clashed her glass on the table. “Who was it?”

“Adrian Crankshaw,” Mr. Bradley answered quietly.

“Mr. Crankshaw?” Obviously even Mrs. Bradley hadn’t known anything about the second child. “Why didn’t you ask him?”

“Because I was too afraid of his response.” Mr. Bradway raised his hands in defense. “I know I should have asked him.”

“Where can we find this Mr. Crankshaw?” Nerinda probed.

“I’m afraid that won’t be easy.” Mr. Bradley wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “When I last heard of him he was living in Rome. But I have no idea if he’s still there.”

“In Rome?” Nerinda turned to Therese. “That’s where we’ve just been!”

“I’m sorry but that’s all I can tell you.” Mr. Bradley poured himself another glass of whiskey and this time his wife didn’t try to prevent it.

Philippe reached for his glass and raised it to Mr. Bradley from the far. “Mr. Bradley,” he said in a solemn voice. “I’d like to thank you and your wife for saving the life of the Airds’ daughter and for raising her like your own child. I’m sure Mrs. Aird will also be overjoyed to hear that.” He took a deep bow in front of the couple. “You have my deepest respect, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley.”

Nerinda stood up too and took the surprised Mr. Bradley into her arms and afterwards his wife. “Thank you so very much,” she said from the bottom of her beard. “I will never forget what you have done.”

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Chapter 13



Christine had to go home after two hours, but since she lived only a few houses away from her parents’ house, she invited the three visitors to come with her and meet her husband and her three children. Six year old William pushed himself protectively in front of his younger siblings when three strangers entered the house without warning. But once Dannie barked outside, four year old Catherine bravely stepped forward and asked politely if she was allowed to play with ‘the doggy’.

Dannie started to play with the children and soon all skepticism about the guests was gone. Even little Johnny tried to throw sticks for Dannie, which wasn’t easy with his short arms. Like their father Eric Levinson, the two boys had almost black hair and resembled their mother more than the blonde Catherine, who looked a lot more like her father.

Mr. Levinson joined them only temporarily because he had customers at his apothecary. To Therese, it seemed that he wasn’t very keen to meet her sister-in-law anyway – Mr. Bradley had told her that Eric Levinson had been one of the people who were convinced that Oliver Cromwell and his allies were nothing but traitors and would ruin England in no time. Thus, he probably didn’t want to have much to do with Harold Aird’s daughter, or maybe he wasn’t a very cordial person anyway.

Unlike him, the children came to trust the visitors very quickly and they thoroughly enjoyed the attention they were getting. It was also obvious that Nerinda relished her role as an aunt, although the kids didn’t know anything about it. The adults had decided not to tell them the news about their family, at least for now, because they didn’t want to unnecessarily confuse them.

Time flew, and when the sun set over the roofs of Oxford, Christine invited her guests to stay the night and travel back to London in the morning. They accepted gratefully and Dannie sighed contentedly when he was allowed to curl up next to Therese’s bed.

The Levinsons had to get up early the following morning and Nerinda, Philippe, and Therese politely joined them for breakfast. Nerinda had decided to visit her mother in the afternoon and she asked Christine to come with her to Westminster. Therese choked on her food as she heard Nerinda’s question, but fortunately Christine declined. It wasn’t very wise to ambush Carolyn like that and Christine needed to get accustomed to the situation as well, before she felt ready to meet her mother.

Mr. Levinson was already at his apothecary when the three visitors said farewell to Christine and the children. Billions of dew drops covered the meadows and fields when they left Oxford, but the dampness in the air disappeared quickly as the sun rose in the sky.

“Do you want to accompany us to Westminster or shall we take you somewhere, Mr. Belivet?” Philippe asked as they passed Stadhampton.

Therese hadn’t thought about anything else, since they had left Oxford, yet Philippe’s question took her by surprise. For some reason, it felt as if it became real only now, at this morning, that she had to make a decision. Would Carolyn even want to see her after all these years? And who would Therese meet? How much of the Carolyn she had known back then was still there?

Therese was aware that she had created a picture of Carolyn Aird over the years that was rather a fantasy image than reality. It had served her as a projection surface for her longings, for everything she couldn’t have in her life and never would. Was it really wise to destroy all this by a brief encounter with reality?

“Please, Mr. Belivet,” Nerinda pleaded next to her. “My mother has made herself unapproachable to everyone, even me.” She grabbed Therese’s arm. “Maybe it will be like that for the rest of her life, but isn’t it at least worth a try to visit her? Maybe meeting you and also the news about my sister will take her mind off of things.”

Therese could hear Nerinda’s love for her mother in every syllable. It wouldn’t be fair to her to simply go back to Rome, just because she was afraid. And that she was. The idea of facing Carolyn immediately threw her into a panic and she discreetly wiped the beads of sweat from her forehead. “All right.” She gave in eventually, which earned her a bear hug from Nerinda. “But I won’t stay long.”

During their ride to Westminster, Therese regretted her decision a hundred times. More than once she felt the impulse to just jump from the carriage and let Philippe and Nerinda continue their trip without her. But the fact that Carolyn seemed to have completely turned away from life kept her in the carriage. She couldn’t be a coward now because Nerinda was right: it was worth a try.

The sun burned on their heads when they arrived in Westminster late in the afternoon, but Therese’s hands turned cold as ice at the sight of Carolyn’s new home. “Here we are,” Nerinda announced, taking Philippe’s hand as she got out of the carriage. “You better wait here, Mr. Belivet. My husband and I will be enough surprise for my mother.”

Therese was more than fine with that. “Go ahead, Nerinda. Your mother probably doesn’t want to see me anyway.”

She sat down on a big stone in front the house and Dannie put his brown head on her lap as she waited nervously for Nerinda’s return. While she was trying to get her heartbeat under control, her gaze fell on a knotted oak tree in front the house that had to be at least a hundred years old. What might this tree have seen in the course of its long life? How much joy, how many tears, love, fights, quarrels, jealousy, grief, famines, and overstuffed granaries. How small were Therese’s own difficulties in view of the things that were happening in her country. At this time, nobody could say whether England would become a shining example for all other states in Europe, or if it would go down without mercy.

Dannie seemed to be surprised by his mistress’ nervousness and did his best to distract her from her thoughts. Therese scratched him between his ears, trying hard to get enough air into her lungs and to calm her rapid pulse.

She tried to imagine Carolyn walking on this street every day, opening and closing the front door, walking around in the garden, buying eggs and vegetables at the market. It felt weird that Carolyn had actually lived here all these years while Therese had treated her as if she had died.

After what felt like an eternity, Nerinda and Philippe finally came back – without Carolyn. Nerinda had a strange expression on her face when she walked to Therese with quick steps, waving her closer. “I’m sorry that it took us so long,” she apologized. “We told my mother about a visitor, but she didn’t want to see anybody.”

“Well, okay, then we should …” Therese turned around to leave.

“No, no, Mr. Belivet. Not so fast.” Nerinda grabbed Therese’s sleeve. “We explained to her that the visitor had undertaken a long journey to see her. So she agreed, although reluctantly. Don’t pitch your hopes too high.”

“Are you sure I should go to her?” Therese looked at the front door indecisively.

“Yes.”

“Very well.” Therese suppressed a sigh and straightened her shoulders. “Did you tell her about the Bradleys?”

“No, not yet.” Nerinda walked with Therese to the door. “We didn’t want to confuse her even more. Maybe you will find a way to tell her.”

“I doubt that,” Therese murmured, stopping in front of the door.

“My wife and I will take a long walk now,” Philippe announced, offering his arm to Nerinda. “And we’ll take Dannie with us.” The dog jumped to his feet when Philippe threw a stick in the street.

“Good luck, Therese,” Nerinda whispered into her ear before she began to stroll along the street with her husband.

Therese looked after them with a mixture of envy and relief. She would prefer a long walk too right now but at least Nerinda and Philippe were tactful enough to leave her alone with Nerinda’s mother. It couldn’t get worse than it had already been in the last fifteen years, so Therese decided to get it over with as quickly as possible.

She tugged on her jerkin one last time and determinedly walked through the white front door. She found herself in a corridor with dark stone tiles that led to several other doors. Therese guessed that the chamber behind the big double door at the end of the hall was probably the living room. She swallowed when she recognized some of the furniture from the Essex House in the corridor. But there was also a lot of new purchase.

Therese stopped in front of the double door and before she could change her mind, she knocked distinctly at the door and opened it. A thousand times she had imagined this moment, and yet the sight of Carolyn caught her off guard like on the very first day. Carolyn stood at the window and turned around when she heard the creaking of the door. Her hair had some grey strands by now and she was even thinner. But it was unmistakably Carolyn Aird whose blue eyes stared at Therese in disbelief.

“Mr. Belivet?” Carolyn’s voice was throatier and deeper than back then. It was noticeable that she didn’t use it much.

Therese closed the door behind her with shaking hands. “Nerinda and Philippe took a walk.” She shot a shy glance at Carolyn. “May I come closer?”

Therese wasn’t sure if Carolyn had heard her question because she was still standing at the window and didn’t react.

“Carolyn?”

Finally, something stirred in Carolyn’s face. “Therese?”

All of a sudden, everything Therese had planned to say became null and void. Before she knew what was happening, she was running to Carolyn and taking her into her arms. Immediately, the familiar scent reached her nostrils that she would recognize among thousands of scents. She felt Carolyn’s hands on her back and her slender shoulder blades under her own fingers.

“I need to sit down,” Carolyn whispered and walked with Therese to a red sofa that Therese knew already from the Essex House. It had been in the chamber next to the music room and Therese had always admired its beauty.

Only now that she sat so close to Carolyn, Therese noticed how much she had changed. Her face was pale and she was much too thin, and the dark rings under her eyes hadn’t been there before either.

Therese reached for Carolyn’s hand and squeezed it. As if no time had passed, she felt the touch in every fiber of her body. “It’s nice to see you,” she said softly. She looked down at their hands and couldn’t believe how familiar Carolyn’s touch still felt. They were worlds apart after all these years – Therese knew that. Yet, there was something timeless, outlasting she couldn’t quite grab.

Carolyn didn’t say a word, but her face revealed shock and confusion. Therese wasn’t even sure if she was actually glad to see her. There was also something aloof and standoffish in Carolyn’s attitude that made Therese withdraw her hand again.

They just sat there for a while and Therese desperately tried to remember what she had planned to say. Her head felt completely empty and at the same time it threatened to burst with questions. She grabbed the first straw her brain could catch. “I’m sorry about your husband,” she said quietly. “Nerinda told me.”

Carolyn looked at her, confused. “Hadn’t you heard of it? The whole world talked about it.” She shook her head. “The memorial ceremony took place in Westminster Abbey. It was like a state ceremony.”

“I… I was in Bavaria at that time,” Therese muttered ruefully. “I hadn’t gotten any messages for years during the war. I didn’t even know if my sisters were still alive.”

“And were they?”

Therese knew Carolyn still well enough to know that she didn’t only ask out of genuine interest. It was also a strategy to turn the focus away from her. Therese decided to grant it to her, as she hadn’t pre-announced her visit after all. “Yes, they’re all doing well, as far as I know,” Therese responded, trying to suppress the trembling in her voice.

“When did you see them last?”

“Fifteen years ago.” Therese looked down to avoid Carolyn’s scrutinizing gaze. “When I left England.”

With a start, Carolyn got up from the sofa. “You’ve never been to England again?” she asked in disbelief. “I thought your family was so important to you.”

Therese didn’t dare to look at her. What was she supposed to say? It was too easy to blame fate or the war. She had deliberately avoided traveling to London because she had been afraid that she wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to see Carolyn. The whole mess would have started all over again and that wouldn’t have helped anyone.

Carolyn rolled her eyes and walked to the opposite side of the room where the harpsichord stood. “Then why are you here now?” she asked, perceptibly upset. “All these years you knew where I was. Do you have any idea how long I have waited for a sign from you?” She ran her fingers through her hair – a gesture so familiar to Therese it was as if she had seen it only yesterday. “All I asked of you was to drop by every now and then,” she said bitterly. “But you never came. Not once. I didn’t even know if you were still alive.”

A long suppressed anger erupted like a volcano in Therese and she jumped up from the sofa. What gave Carolyn the right to talk like that? She’d had her nest here and her family, which Therese had never had. It wasn’t fair that she, who had decided to stay with her husband, blamed Therese for not enduring the pain. “And how exactly did you imagine these meetings?” she asked in a low voice. “That I watch you living with your husband?” She walked toward the door with quick steps. “I have a heart, too!” she threw at Carolyn.

“My marriage meant nothing to me and you knew that,” Carolyn shot back.

“You supported your husband wherever you could, as it is right and proper for a good wife.” Therese reached for the door handle. “I don’t blame you for that. It was probably a blessing for our country. But I didn’t have a place in your life.”

“You had the greatest place of all,” Carolyn said quietly. “Don’t you know that I loved you?”

Therese’s hand dropped weakly from the door handle as all energy left her. “Then why did you reject me back then?” she asked with a last trace of defiance.

“We would have risked your life.” Carolyn shook her head at Therese’s question. “Do you think I’m out of my mind?”

“It would have been my life,” Therese hissed. “I would have risked it gladly … for every single moment with you.” She suddenly realized how tired she was. Tired of their fight, tired of everything, tired of her own life.

“I couldn’t risk losing you.” Carolyn sounded exhausted and resigned as well. It seemed they had always the same argument, no matter what time or year it was. “Can’t you understand that?”

“That way you have lost me even more.” Therese said the words with a mixture of frustration and bitterness. Of course, she understood Carolyn’s motives, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt.

“At least you’re alive.” Carolyn’s voice trembled. “And I could take care of my daughter.”

Therese looked up at the ceiling. The point wasn’t that she didn’t understand Carolyn’s decision. The point was that Carolyn had never tried to understand hers. Their arguments were fruitless and the longer Therese stayed, the worse it would get. “I needed to get away,” she said, opening the door. “But I was never able to forget you.”

She was almost out the door when she heard Carolyn sobbing. The quiet noise tore Therese’s heart apart and her resistance collapsed like a house of cards.

In three steps, she was next to Carolyn, but Carolyn raised her hands in defense as Therese was about to come closer. “Why did you come, Therese?” she asked under her breath.

Yes, why had she come? It would have been easy to answer that question an hour ago. But now? Little by little, Therese started to realize that she hadn’t come for Nerinda’s sake. Nor had she come for Carolyn’s sake. She had come for her own sake, plain and simple.

Deep inside of her, she had always known that her feelings for Carolyn had never really stopped. Even though she had known and understood that Carolyn would never leave her family, her heart hadn’t stopped missing her. But she hadn’t dared to imagine that Carolyn was actually still thinking of her.

And while Carolyn was standing in front her, waiting for an answer, Therese realized that she would never be free if she didn’t clarify things now. With all her might, she fought against her own fear and looked into the blue-grey eyes that she had missed so much. “Would you still want me?” she asked so quietly that she wasn’t sure Carolyn had actually heard her.

But Carolyn had heard her. “How can you even ask me that?” she whispered.

Carolyn said something else after that, but the whooshing in Therese’s ears drowned the rest of her sentence. All Therese could focus on were Carolyn’s hands which touched her own. And all Therese could do in her fuzzy-headed state was to kiss her. Her cheek, her forehead, her eyebrows, her nose, her mouth.

There wasn’t a question in her kiss, no searching, no hesitating. She just wanted to feel Carolyn again, wanted to dive into her. And when she heard Carolyn sigh, the iron ring around her heart that had been there for years and years, burst into a thousand pieces in one single moment.

“When do Nerinda and Philippe come back?” Carolyn leaned her forehead against Therese’s.

“I’m sure it will take a while,” Therese responded vaguely. Carolyn didn’t need to know that her daughter took her time on purpose.

“When will you leave again?”

“I can stay for a while.”

“That’s good.” For the first time, Therese saw Carolyn smile and it took her breath away. More than their touch, more than their kiss, it was this smile that lifted years of black heaviness from Therese’s shoulders.

“Don’t cry,” Carolyn whispered, wiping a single tear from Therese’s face.

“Can we go somewhere else?” Therese whispered back. She felt like she would break down any moment.

“Where do you want to go?” Carolyn softly kissed her lips and the ground swayed under Therese’s feet.

“Everywhere.”

“Upstairs?”

“Yes, take me to bed.”

Without another word, Carolyn took Therese’s hand and guided her upstairs into her bedroom. Therese noticed only from the corner of her eye that the portrait she had once painted hung on the wall over the dressing table. But she was too overwhelmed to really realize it. Carolyn’s lips were on her neck and Therese felt like dying.

Silently, they took their clothes off and Therese pushed Carolyn into the soft mattress. It felt so surreal that she was really here. In England. In Westminster. With Carolyn.

Carolyn turned Therese on her back and started to cover her naked body with kisses. Every spot started to glow under her lips and Therese felt like her blood was nothing but thick, hot lava and her body the volcano. How could she have ever forgotten what Carolyn made her feel? Therese was on the edge of fainting, but there was something she wanted, needed to say. “I love you, Carolyn,” she whispered. “I always have.”

Carolyn’s tongue delved into her mouth and when their sexes touched, Therese could feel how wet Carolyn was. Overwhelmed by a sudden wave of desire, she rubbed her sex against Carolyn’s, pushing herself against her body.

“No, please … not so fast, Therese …” Carolyn pulled away, catching her breath. “This is too much,” she gasped. “I’ll die if you go on like that.”

“I’ll die if I don’t go on like that.” Therese blushed deeply. “Please, let me touch you.”

“Then touch me.” Carolyn pulled Therese’s hand away from her thighs and put in on her cheek. “Touch me, Therese.”

Therese let herself down on Carolyn’s body with her entire weight. Even the last cell in her body needed to feel that Carolyn was there. That this wasn’t a dream, and that this time she wouldn’t need to sneak out like a thief who had done something wrong. “Better?” she whispered into Carolyn’s ear.

“Hmmm.” Carolyn sighed as Therese’s lips went to the sensitive spot beyond her ear. “Give me some time,” she panted. “Not even an hour ago I was convinced I’d never see you again.”

Therese’s lips went to Carolyn’s other ear. She wished she could go slower, but something inside of her had just snapped. Fifteen years she had resisted the temptation to see Carolyn and now she couldn’t even wait a brief moment. “Then promise me that we’ll see each other tomorrow,” she murmured, rubbing her cheek against Carolyn’s.

“You didn’t really answer my question earlier.” Carolyn closed her eyes when Therese kissed her neck. “How long can you stay?”

“That depends …” Therese withdrew her head, so that she could look at Carolyn.

“Depends on what?” Carolyn tenderly brushed a strand of dark hair out of Therese’s face.

When Therese didn’t respond, Carolyn took her hand and kissed the knuckles. “This house here …” She pointed towards the door with her head. “… is a nice big one. Big enough for two … I was hoping … I was hoping you might like to come live with me.” She avoided Therese’s gaze at first, but then turned her head and looked at her. “Would you?”

“As your lover?” Therese smiled sadly and kissed her chin. “How’s that supposed to work? You are a lady and I’m just an artist.”

“No, not as an artist.” Carolyn’s eyes betrayed her fear but she held her gaze. “As a friend.”

“You mean as a female friend?” Therese pulled away abruptly and sat up on the bed. “You’re mad.”

“No, I’m not.” Carolyn propped her head on her elbow. “Just think about it, Therese. Nobody would get suspicious. You’re just a friend living with me because I’m a widow and you … you … don’t have a husband either. So it makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Therese stared at the ceiling as if the answer was written somewhere on its patterns. Carolyn’s suggestion was bold and completely crazy. “Lady Carolyn and Therese, the weaver’s daughter, ought to be friends?” she asked, frowning. “How’s this supposed to happen?”

Carolyn ran her index finger over Therese’s hip, smiling at the goosebumps she was leaving. “You know more about the power of clothing than anybody else,” she said seductively. “We’ll get some really nice gowns for you and nobody will ask any more questions.”

“What about my job?” Therese knew deep inside that she would make this sacrifice if necessary. But it would be very, very difficult. Her soul needed painting like the air to breathe.

“Whatever you like.” Carolyn bent down and kissed the spot on Therese’s hip where her fingers had just been. “The heritage Harold left me will be enough to live on. But I would never keep you from painting portraits as Theodore Belivet – as long as you always come back to me.”

Therese closed her eyes, trying to keep her head from spinning. Involuntarily, she thought of the moment when she had stood in front of Carolyn’s mirror in the Essex House. The longing she had felt, looking at her own reflection. The longing to be who she really was. Therese had wrapped and locked up that longing as perfectly as her feelings for Carolyn when she had left England.

Was she able to live as a woman again after all this time? Besides, she wouldn’t only need to live as a woman, she would need to live as a lady. Her whole life would change overnight. The truth of the matter was that she would just exchange one lie for another, but at least this was a way to live with Carolyn. And this lie didn’t feel as huge as the other one. She would just be “the friend Therese Belivet”, and from time to time she would travel to other places as Theodore Belivet.

“I understand that you don’t want to give up painting,” Carolyn said softly. “I know how much it means to you. Half of the world wants to be portrayed by you,” she added with a tender smile. “I know I’m being selfish.”

Therese shook her head silently. “Painting has helped me to survive,” she said slowly. “But only in your presence do I feel alive.”

It was strange to say something like that – they hadn’t spent more than a few weeks of their lives together after all – but it was the truth. Therese looked up and blushed when she saw the love in Carolyn’s eyes. “I know what you mean.” Carolyn smiled.

“Nerinda told me that I never really went away,” Therese murmured, a little embarrassed. “And I’m afraid she was right.”

She hadn’t finished her sentence, when Carolyn pulled back. “Nerinda?” she asked, visibly confused. “What does Nerinda have to do with this?”

Therese sighed when the reason for her journey came back with a rush. How could she explain to Carolyn what had happened? “That’s a long story,” she said cautiously.

“Therese.” Carolyn moved even further away from her. “What’s going on here?” she asked harshly. “Nerinda acted as if you had just met by accident. But you don’t sound like that at all. Did she ask you to visit me?”

“Well, yes, in a way,” Therese had to admit. “But I wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t wanted to.”

“Oh, I see.” Carolyn’s voice wavered with anger. “So this is one of Nerinda’s We-need-to-get-mother-out-of-her-melancholia-plans. Tell me, Therese, did she offer you money?”

“Are you insane?” Therese helplessly watched Carolyn entrench behind a thick wall. “Of course not,” she repeated, shaking her head. “Carolyn, please, let me explain …”

“I’m not sure I want to hear that.” Carolyn was about to leave the bed, but Therese grabbed her arm.

“Stay here and listen to me,” she said with an authority she hadn’t thought she was capable of. But it had the intended effect, because Carolyn actually sank back onto the bed and crossed her arms before her chest.

“Whatever you have to say, do it quickly,” she said coolly. “I don’t want to waste my time.”

Therese would have loved to take her into her arms but she knew Carolyn wouldn’t let her. “Please promise me that you will hear me out until I’m finished,” she urged her, which made Carolyn even more suspicious. Biting her lip, she looked at the opposite wall where the portrait hung. It hadn’t lost any of its radiance, and the fact that Carolyn had kept the painting and had even hung it on a wall in her bed chamber, made Therese’s heart swell with pride and happiness.

With a nod, Carolyn gave her agreement and Therese took a deep breath, bracing herself for everything that was about to happen. “Nerinda visited me in Rome,” she started and deliberately ignored Carolyn’s frown. “She had a request and wanted me to help her.”

“What kind of a request?” Carolyn asked, pointedly bored, but Therese didn’t let herself fool by her attitude. Of course, Carolyn wanted to know why her daughter would undertake the weary journey from Paris to Rome.

“Carolyn …” Therese made a helpless gesture. “I can’t tell you this without holding your hand.” She waited patiently for Carolyn’s response. “Can you please allow me that?”

Carolyn turned flat on her back and offered her hand like an object that didn’t belong to her. She closed her eyes when Therese kissed the palm of her hand, but didn’t say anything.

“It’s not what you think,” Therese explained, pulling Carolyn’s hand towards her chest. “She didn’t come because of you, but it concerns you, too. So again, I beg you to listen to me until I’m finished.”

Carolyn eyed her suspiciously, but didn’t put up resistance.

Therese had no idea how to say the next words without saying them. There was no going back now. “Do you remember that Nerinda visited several hospitals during her engagement period?”

Carolyn nodded silently and Therese could see that she wondered – like Therese had done back then – what Nerinda’s hospital visits had to do with her journey to Rome.

Therese was so captivated by her attention for Carolyn that she had started to breathe flatly and she forced herself to calm down. “On one of these hospital visits Nerinda met a patient who was ill with typhus,” she continued. “The patient looked a lot like her and Philippe noticed the resemblance, too.”

Therese cautiously watched Carolyn from the side, but she was just lying on her bed motionlessly and listened to Therese’s words with a straight face. “Nerinda told me she had always wondered why she hadn’t had other siblings, because she knew that her parents had already been married for a long time when she was born.”

For the first time, Therese registered a subtle restlessness in Carolyn’s limbs and she hurried to go on. “Nerinda suspected that the woman she had met at the hospital could be her sister.”

Carolyn closed her eyes, but her stiff body was tensed up like a bow right before the shot. She didn’t move at all and didn’t react either when Therese kissed the palm of her hand before putting it back onto her chest.

“You promised to listen to me,” Therese reminded her softly. “Nerinda told me she had tried several times to talk to you about it, but she didn’t succeed. Eventually, desperate as she was, she started to read extracts from your diaries.”

“What?!” Carolyn opened her eyes wide and tried to tear away from Therese. But Therese didn’t let her go and after a while Carolyn fell back into the cushions with a frustrated grunt. “How dare she?” she hissed.

“Your daughter was desperate, Carolyn. She couldn’t get through to you anymore.” Therese knew very well that there was no excuse for Nerinda’s behavior. Carolyn had every right to be angry at her. But she should at least understand that Nerinda had tried all other ways. “She also read about us in those diaries.”

“Oh God,” Carolyn moaned, putting her hand on her eyelids.

Therese hurried to continue with her story, before Carolyn threw her out of the chamber. “That’s why she knows that I’m a woman,” she explained. “And your servant Abigail seemed to have encouraged her to visit me and ask me questions.”

“Abigail?” Carolyn’s eyes flashed with fury. “Nerinda talked to Abigail behind my back?”

“Carolyn.” Therese pushed her gently back onto the mattress. “You shouldn’t underestimate how much you have shot yourself off of the people who loved you. Of course that entailed consequences.”

“Are you telling me that it’s my fault that my own daughter reads my diaries and people band together behind my back?” Carolyn was so furious that Therese was afraid she would break something any moment.

“No, of course not.” Therese shot a worried glance at the door. She could only hope that Nerinda and Philippe kept her promise to stay away longer. Otherwise, Carolyn might throw all of them out of the house. “What Nerinda did, wasn’t right. There’s no doubt about that,” Therese emphasized and put her arms around Carolyn before she was able to resist. “But honestly, we can talk about these things later. The most important thing is that Nerinda asked me a question and I gave her the response she needed.”

Therese felt Carolyn freeze in her arms and pulled her even more against her body. “Long before Nerinda visited me, she had tracked down the woman in question,” she explained. “But she didn’t want to do anything, before she hadn’t any kind of confirmation about her suspicion. And when she had it, Nerinda and Philippe travelled to Oxford to meet that woman. And I accompanied them.”

Finally, Therese loosened her grip but kept both of her arms around Carolyn. “Your oldest daughter Maria is alive, Carolyn,” she said softly. “A doctor in Oxford and his wife raised her – very nice people, we’ve met them – and meanwhile she is married to an apothecary. Her name is Christine Levinson and she would like to meet you.”

Therese released her embrace as she noticed that something was wrong. Carolyn seemed to be in some kind of shock. Her eyes were wide open and she struggled for air as if she was drowning.

“Carolyn?” Therese took her face in both of her hands and covered it with kisses. When Carolyn didn’t react she pulled her so tightly into her arms that she was afraid of hurting her. “Please, say something, Carolyn,” she begged. “Come back to me.”

Suddenly, Therese felt a trembling, and it took a while before she realized that it was Carolyn. Her whole body seemed to rear up, shaking and quivering and Therese held her as tight as she could.

The shaking didn’t stop and all Therese could do was lie next to her and not leave her side. Finally, the trembling subsided and turned into sobbing. Carolyn’s whole body shook with uncontrollable sobs and Therese whispered loving words into her ear and kissed the tears from her cheeks.

After a while, the sobbing decreased too and it became silent in the bed chamber. Only Carolyn’s irregular breathing was audible. “What about Anna?” Carolyn’s hoarse voice broke the silence. “Did you hear anything about her?”

Therese kissed her damp cheek, relieved that Carolyn seemed to be responsive again. “We don’t know if she’s alive or not but we have the name of a man who we can ask. The man lived in Rome for several years and I will gather more information as soon as I’m back.”

Carolyn breathed heavily in Therese’s arms. “And Maria really wants to see me?”

“Christine? Yes, that’s what she said. She’s waiting for your invitation.” Therese ran her fingertips over Carolyn’s eyebrows and kissed away the tiny beads of sweat on her forehead. “And there’s something else,” she added. “Christine has three children – two boys and a girl. So you actually have grandchildren, even though the kids don’t know it and probably won’t for a long while.” She kissed the sticky strands of hair on Carolyn’s wet temple. “The boys look a lot like you.”

Carolyn’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so shocked about myself,” she said, more to herself than to Therese. “I hadn’t realized how much I must have retreated from the people around me. And I hadn’t noticed that even my own daughter couldn’t reach me anymore.” She wiped the wetness from her face with the back of her hand. “What did I do to her? She means everything to me.”

“Nerinda knows that she means the world to you.” Therese interrupted Carolyn’s self-reproaches with a kiss. “But I’m sure she will be happy if you spend more time with her again.”

“Yes, I will.” Carolyn frowned. “Over the last years, I grieved so much about what I couldn’t have, instead of enjoying what I had.” She bent to Therese and kissed her cheek. “Wasn’t that what I had blamed you of in the past?”

“I don’t really remember,” Therese said vaguely, although she still knew every single word of Carolyn’s two letters by heart. But Carolyn didn’t need to know that. “It’s more important to look ahead instead of looking back,” she said diplomatically.

“And what do you see if you look ahead?” Carolyn’s question was uttered calmly, but Therese noticed she was holding her breath.

“I see a life in Westminster … in this house,” she said hesitantly, hoping that Carolyn still saw something similar, even after everything Therese had just told her. “… by the side of the person I love.” She dropped her gaze when Carolyn didn’t say anything. “What do you see?” she prompted.

Carolyn sighed and kissed her naked shoulder. “Life.”

It was only one word, but in the blink of an eye, Therese felt a happiness she had never felt before in her life. Yes, she would live with Carolyn in Westminster. She would belong to somebody from now on. She would have a home, maybe even kind of a family, and a person that meant everything to her.

A lot of things would change in the next months, but Therese liked the idea of working less a lot better than she had thought. She had painted so many portraits in her life that she couldn’t wait to focus more on landscape painting in England. There was still so much to explore, so many scenes, so many moments she wanted to capture.

She would see her sisters more often from now on. She would make weird bets with Beth again, she would finally meet Eda’s and Martha’s husbands and maybe she would even renovate her parents’ house and the weaving mill.

“Harold has left me so much money,” Carolyn interrupted her musings. “… that I’m wondering if I should do something with it – for a good cause, I mean.”

“That’s a great idea.” Therese kissed Carolyn’s grey hairline. They had gotten older, both of them; they had changed over the years. But there was still something big, something vital, that hadn’t changed at all and that was young like on the very first day. “What are you thinking about?”

“Maybe a home for orphans?” Carolyn tapped on the blanket with her fingers, deeply in thought. “Do you think that would do me good?”

“I think it would do you very good.” Therese loved Carolyn’s idea. She needed to feel useful again. “The children would need somebody who knows a lot about medicine,” she mused.

Carolyn smiled and they went silent for a while. “Therese?” Carolyn finally asked, snuggling deeper into the crook of Therese’s neck. “Would you do me favor?”

“Yes, whatever it is.”

“Can we continue what we started earlier?”

It was just a simple request, but Therese’s heart skipped a beat when she heard the longing in Carolyn’s voice. The haste, the urgency she had felt earlier had vanished. They both knew now that they had all the time in the world with each other. And Therese took her time to drink and eat and breathe Carolyn with every touch and every move. Giving her back what she was giving her, sharing the moments of highest happiness and bliss – all that made her almost burst with joy. “I’m afraid you won’t get rid of me ever again,” she whispered as she sank into Carolyn’s arms.

“Good.” Carolyn kissed her tenderly on the lips. “Because I love you.”





* * *






Therese woke up from her slumber by a loud knocking. She opened her eyes reluctantly and noticed that Carolyn was still sleeping next to her.

Before Therese could react, the door opened and an elegantly dressed woman with nut-brown hair entered the room. “Carol, I …” She stopped in mid-sentence when she spotted Therese. “Who are you, if I may ask?” she asked, half surprised, half indignant.

Therese wondered what kind of an impertinent person had the nerve to burst into another person’s bed chamber without even waiting for a response to their knock. “And who are you, if I may ask?” she hissed back.

Only now, the woman spotted Carolyn’s blonde shock of hair under the blanket and finally managed to apologize. “Oh, I’m sorry, Carol, I didn’t know …”

“Abigail?” Carolyn opened her eyes and stared at the door in confusion. “What are you doing here?”

“We have an appointment, my dear. Did you forget that?” Abigail shot a meaningful glance at Therese who rubbed her eyes in disbelief. Since when did mistresses and their servants appointments?

“Oh …” Carolyn sat up in her bed. “I’m really sorry, Abigail. This is Therese, by the way. Therese, this is Abigail, my … servant and … friend.”

“I see.” And what a nice servant she was. That woman was neither dressed like one, nor did she behave like one. And why did she call Carolyn Carol[i]? Therese mutely cursed her own naivety. How could she have talked about a future together with Carolyn? She had no idea what was going on in her life. How could she be so stupid and think that Carolyn hadn’t done anything else but wait for her in the last fifteen years? They didn’t really know each other anymore.

“Nice to meet you.” Abigail looked at Therese with the same mistrustful expression as vice versa. “I think I’d better wait outside,” she stated and closed the door again.

Therese turned to Carolyn as soon as they were alone again and was about to say something when Carolyn started to laugh. “What’s so funny?” she asked angrily. “Who does this woman think she is?”

“Oh, that’s just Abigail,” Carolyn chuckled. “That’s the way she is.”

“Do you sleep with her?”

“Excuse me?” Carolyn sounded indignantly, but she couldn’t keep her face from flushing.

“I guess that’s a yes,” Therese stated coolly and got out of the bed to pick up her clothes from the floor.

“Therese, please, don’t be like that.” Carolyn left the bed as well. “Abigail has become a true friend over the years.”

“I can see that,” Therese muttered. “Why don’t you admit that something is going on between the two of you? My goodness, she calls you [i]Carol
!” Therese uttered the last words with the most possible contempt.

“My father called me that and Abigail liked it.” Carolyn took Therese’s hand and sat down on the edge of the bed with her. “You’re right, Therese. I did spend one night with her.” She let go of Therese’s hands but pleaded her with her eyes to stay seated. “It was just one time and it was years ago.” She grabbed Therese’s chin and forced her to look at her. “I had hoped it would be a way to forget you, but it didn’t work,” she added with a sigh. “So we didn’t repeat it.”

“Is she … married?” Therese asked, still skeptical.

“No.” Carolyn shook her head. “She’s like us.”

“Like us?”

“Yes.” Carolyn pulled the blanket over her body when she started to get cold and covered Therese’s back as well. “She’s secretly involved with another woman, a Duchess who is, of course, married. That’s all I’m allowed tell you.”

“Does she know about us?”

“Yes.” Carolyn nodded. “I didn’t tell her, but she read it between the lines.”

“Your friend is jealous.”

“No, she’s trying to protect me.” Carolyn gently put her hand on Therese’s knee. “I was really hurt when I never heard from you, so it’s no wonder that Abigail is suspicious towards you.”

A loud barking outside of the house interrupted their conversation. “Oh, that’s Dannie.” Therese jumped up to get dressed. “Nerinda and Philippe are back.”

“Who is Dannie?” Carolyn asked alarmed, quickly picking up her clothes from the floor.

“My dog.” Therese laughed as she saw Carolyn’s dumbfounded expression. “I could hardly leave him in Rome.” She gave Carolyn a quick kiss on the cheek before she started to dress herself. “You will like him. He likes to cuddle.”

“You’re still full of surprises.” Carolyn shook her head but Therese saw that she was smiling. “What does Philippe know?” she asked while lacing her shoes. “Did Nerinda tell him anything?”

“No, he doesn’t know anything.” Therese briefly pushed her index finger under her chest bandage to remove the unevenness before she put on her shirt. “I think he suspects that we had an affair in the past, but he doesn’t know …”

“… that you are a woman?”

“Yes.” Therese buttoned up the last button of her shirt and helped Carolyn stringing her dress. “Do you think we should tell him?”

“I’m afraid we’ll have to.” Carolyn caught her breath as Therese’s hand brushed her breast while stringing her dress. “But we won’t tell him about … about you and me. I don’t know him well enough.”

“Very well.” Therese kissed Carolyn’s neck after she had finished her task and opened the door. “Are you ready?”

“Not yet.” Carolyn pulled her back and demanded one last kiss. “Don’t forget that in a way, this is your family too now.” She adjusted her hairdo one last time, before she followed Therese through the door.

_________________
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Chapter 14



Carolyn had indeed been right that Abigail wasn’t Therese’s opponent but their ally. There was no doubt Carolyn’s friend had a loose tongue and Therese often wasn’t sure if Abigail was serious or just kidding her. But her heart was in the right place and both Carolyn and Therese could count on her loyalty.

Philippe, on the other hand, was noticeably more distant towards Therese since she had revealed her secret to him. It was incomprehensible to him why a woman would pretend to be a man, and he was even more aghast that he hadn’t noticed it. The transformation from the artist Theodore Belivet into the weaver’s daughter Therese Belivet seemed to turn his entire worldview upside down. Although he wasn’t hostile towards Therese and Carolyn, he mostly tried to avoid them.

“That’s not how God has created us,” he told Nerinda who defended Therese at first, but eventually gave up as she noticed that her husband needed some time to adjust to the situation. Nerinda didn’t share his beliefs but she understood his point of view – unlike him, she had read her mother’s diaries which had helped her to understand her mother.

Carolyn and her daughter had talked a lot about Carolyn’s diaries. She still felt betrayed by Nerinda who had read her most intimate thoughts. On the other hand, Carolyn began to understand the situation Nerinda had been in and how much she had tried to reach out to her.

They had a lot to talk about, mother and daughter, and it was good that both of them wanted to come clean with the other. Philippe had insisted that the Audreys would stay at a nearby shelter in Westminster, but Nerinda came by every day to spend time with her mother.

Therese, who stayed at Carolyn’s house, retreated discreetly every time Nerinda entered Carolyn’s home. Even though both women invited Therese to stay, she declined. She was convinced that misunderstandings were a lot better to clarify if there weren’t any witnesses in the room. And indeed, Carolyn seemed to feel a little more relaxed after every meeting, and the conversations with her mother seemed to do Nerinda good as well.

The rest of the days were reserved for Therese and Carolyn and Therese enjoyed every single moment to the fullest. She was on cloud nine and had to pinch herself at least once a day just to make sure that she wasn’t dreaming. Never in a thousand years, had she dreamed to be this happy one day.

The change of roles from man to woman however was more difficult than Therese had expected. It had been more than fifteen years ago that she had worn women’s clothes and she had to change not only her posture but all her moves as well. Some gestures that were so natural for a man needed to be omitted by a woman, and vice versa. So Therese stood in front of the mirror several times a day to practice some moves and to her delight, she was getting better little by little.

The next day after their reencounter, Carolyn and Therese had bought fabrics and had gotten dresses made for Therese. She was grateful for Carolyn’s expert eye because she felt so foreign and strange in elegant gowns that she wasn’t able to say which kind of female clothes suited her and which didn’t.

“What do we do with Christine?” Therese asked one morning when she sat with Carolyn in the back yard, peeling potatoes for lunch. “She met me as a man.”

“I thought about that, too.” Carolyn looked up from her sewing. “I wouldn’t want to lie to her.”

“Me neither.” Therese put her knife down and considered the question. “Maybe it would be better if I wasn’t with you at your first encounter. If things go well, we will see what we will do. If they don’t, we won’t need to tell her anything.”

“Would that be okay with you?” Carolyn took a thread between her teeth, biting it off.

“Yes, of course.” Therese’s offer was actually a lot more difficult for her than she admitted – she hated not being able to be at Carolyn’s side during the meeting. “If Christine wants to see you more often, I could still be Theodore Belivet’s little sister.”

“We shouldn’t think about these things now,” Carolyn said briskly, which didn’t surprise Therese in the least. She knew how hard Carolyn tried not to be too hopeful regarding her meeting with her daughter Maria. Of course, every mother would naturally hope that her daughter would like and respect her, but Carolyn tried to avoid these thoughts. “And you’re sure you will find something to pass your time?”

“Absolutely.” Therese bent down to pick up a potato peel from the grass. “I could visit my sisters that day.”

“That’s an excellent idea.” Smiling, Carolyn watched Therese cautiously putting the potato peel back on the great pile. “Actually, you’re full of excellent ideas, my darling,” she said tenderly.

Their heads jerked apart as they heard steps in front of the house, but it was just Nerinda, paying her daily visit to her mother. The joy in Carolyn’s face vanished though when Philippe appeared behind Nerinda. It was the first time he had accompanied his wife since their arrival in Westminster and to Therese’s surprise he seemed a lot more relaxed today.

Nerinda noticed the frown on her mother’s face. “Philippe came with me because we have something to tell you, mother,” she explained and when Therese saw the blush on her cheeks, she knew what would follow. “I think I’m with child, mother.”

“Really? Are you serious?” Carolyn got up and pulled her daughter into her arms. Then she shook Philippe’s hand and asked the couple to sit down at the table. “How are you, Nerinda? Do you have any discomfort?” Carolyn looked calmed and composed, but Therese knew how happy she was about the news.

“No, I’m just more tired than usual. Phillipe and I are both overjoyed.” Nerinda beamed at her husband as she sat down. “But we won’t be able to stay in England for much longer, because the journey back to Paris will soon be too difficult for me.”

Therese rose too now and congratulated the parents-to-be. “I guess that means you won’t accompany me on my journey back to Rome?” she asked Nerinda.

“To pay Adrian Crankshaw a visit?” Nerinda exchanged glances with her husband. “Can’t we make that possible somehow, Philippe?”

“Absolutely not.” Philippe made a gesture which tolerated no dissent. “You need to take care of yourself now, first and foremost.”

“I can do this on my own,” Therese agreed with Philippe. Like him, she found Nerinda’s idea irresponsible. “As much as I would have loved your company, you can’t go on this long journey a second time, Nerinda. And we don’t even know where Mr. Crankshaw resides. Maybe he’s back in England meanwhile.”

“I don’t like the idea that you have to do this on your own, Therese.” Nerinda frowned. “And you, mother? Would you like to accompany Therese?”

“Yes, I would.” Carolyn gave Therese a quizzical look. “Maybe I can help you with your research and I can give you a hand when you start packing your stuff.”

Therese’s heart skipped a beat at Carolyn’s words. She found it incredibly hard to keep sitting on her seat instead of jumping up and throwing her arms around the woman she loved. She couldn’t even hold her hand, like Nerinda held Philippe’s. The expression in Carolyn’s eyes told Therese that she was thinking something similar and Therese put a silent promise into her smile that they would make up for everything later.

“Are there commissions in Rome that you haven’t finished yet?” Carolyn’s voice sounded matter-of-fact but Therese heard the slight trembling underneath.

“No, I accomplished everything because I intended to travel to Venice for a while.” Therese’s life in Rome felt surprisingly far away now, almost like a dream. Had she even been alive during all these years?

“To Venice?” Carolyn smiled. “I don’t want to keep you from doing that. So if it isn’t too much bother I’d like to go with you. I’ve always wanted to see Venice.”

The idea of traveling to Venice with Carolyn took Therese’s breath away and she quickly bent over the pile of potatoes to hide her emotion. But how would they do that without attracting public attention? The fact that Carolyn was a widow now made things easier, but it was still unusual that a lady travelled with a painter. “You would have to be my official commissioner and model,” Therese mused, throwing another peeled potato into the pot. “And I have to warn you, I take my job very seriously, so you will need to stand in front of the boats in Venice quite often.”

“Oh, that’s all right with me.” Carolyn winked, taking up her sewing again. “And if I remember correctly, you have promised me years ago to create a painting of my daughter and me.”

“Believe me, I can’t wait to live up to that that promise.” Therese turned to Nerinda. “If your daughter agrees.”

“I would love it!” Nerinda nodded eagerly. “There’s not a single painting with my mother and me.”

“What’s going on here?” The four of them heard Abigail’s voice before she came around the corner with a basket of eggs. “A family gathering?”

“I’m with child, Abigail.” Nerinda proudly pointed at the tiny rounding beneath her dress.

“Oh, that’s fantastic news, my dear!” Abigail put her basket on the table with a vivacious move and gave Nerinda a firm hug.

As she gave the mother-to-be a quick kiss on the cheeks, Therese threw a scrutinizing glance at the basket, in which a yellow fluid started to spread over the eggs. When Therese looked up again, her eyes met Carolyn’s, who just shrugged.

“Miss Gerhard.” Philippe cleared his throat. “Your eggs …”

“I know.” Abigail wiped a tear from her cheek. “What are a few eggs compared to the fact that human life is growing and thriving here?” She put her hands above the small bulge on Nerinda’s belly. “Have you toasted the news yet?”

Therese got up from her chair to look for glasses in the house. Actually this would have been Abigail’s job but she obviously preferred to sit down at the table next to Carolyn. As opposed to Therese, everybody else seemed to have gotten used to the fact that Abigail felt apparently a lot less responsible for the house than for Carolyn’s well-being. Nobody seemed to take notice that it was Therese who eventually came back with five filled glasses on a tray.

“Splendid!” Abigail beamed when she spotted Therese with the tray. Quickly, she handed everybody a glass and Philippe said a few, solemn words before they all clinked glasses. “To the parents-to-be and to the grandmother,” Abigail said with a twinkle in her eyes.

The clinking of glasses lured Dannie to the table who joyfully wiggled his tail when Abigail gave him the smashed eggs.

“Now that I’m thinking about it, Carol, you’re actually four-fold grandmother,” Abigail whispered to Carolyn and Therese couldn’t help herself but feel a little sting at her remark. Of course, Carolyn had let Abigail in on everything. Abigail seemed to know everything about her. “Do you and your wife still want to go to Rome?” Abigail asked Philippe. “The trip won’t be easy for your wife.”

“That’s right,” Philippe agreed. “We’ve decided to travel back to Paris soon.”

I will accompany Therese to Rome,” Carolyn added.

“You?” Abigail raised an eyebrow. “Do you think that’s wise?” She lowered her voice as she realized that she wasn’t alone with Carolyn. “What if this Mr. Crankshaw tells you that … that …”

“That Anna isn’t alive anymore?” Carolyn calmly completed her question. “I’ve thought about going on this journey for a while now and I’m prepared for everything.”

Abigail shook her head disapprovingly. “I don’t think you are, Carol. No mother can be prepared for something like this.”

Therese watched the conversation between the two friends with a mixture of jealousy and concern. She agreed with Abigail that Carolyn overestimated herself. She had been convinced for years that her daughters were dead, but of course the upcoming meeting with Christine Levinson intensified her hope that Anna could be alive as well. How would Carolyn feel if Mr. Crankshaw confirmed the death of her daughter – and probably even caused it himself? Therese was really afraid of that moment - so how much more scared would Carolyn be?

“Nobody knows where Mr. Cranshaw is at the moment,” Philippe argued. “And it’s not unlikely that you won’t find him at all.”

“But if you find him, it could indeed be difficult for you, mother,” Nerinda added.

“It’s very kind of you all that you’re so worried about me,” Carolyn sighed, slightly irritated. “But nobody can keep me from facing the man that killed – or saved – my daughter.”

Abigail glanced at Therese, mutely asking for help, but Therese didn’t intend to talk Carolyn out of it. She was actually at least as concerned as Abigail but Carolyn was an adult and able to make her own decisions.

“Maybe I should join you on your journey,” Abigail offered.

“That’s not necessary,” Therese said quickly. That was all she needed, Abigail travelling to Rome with them, or even to Venice. It was hard enough to accept a friend next to Carolyn who seemed to know her much better than Therese did. At least she wanted to be alone with Carolyn on their trip. It would be a great chance to get to know each other better and to create nice memories together.

To Therese’s relief, Carolyn didn’t seem to find Abigail’s suggestion very alluring either. “Thank you, Abigail, but I can take care of myself,” she said, touching Abigail’s arm. “And I think you are much more needed elsewhere.”

Abigail blushed slightly and nodded. Hiding her relief, Therese shot Abigail a grateful glance. She was glad that Carolyn had a friend like this who had been by her side all those years, but Abigail needed to learn that she hadn’t Carolyn all for herself anymore. Now Therese was there for Carolyn and somewhere in England a Duchess waited for Abigail to spend more time with her.

Therese walked to Abigail and showed with a shy hug what couldn’t be said. After a brief moment of surprise, Abigail reciprocated her embrace and Therese knew that she had understood. It wasn’t easy for either of them, but they liked each other and over time they would learn to trust each other.






* * *







It was decided that Therese and Carolyn would accompany the Audreys to Paris and travel to Rome from there. That way Carolyn would finally see Nerinda’s home and they could rest a few days there before continuing their journey. Philippe wanted to go back to Paris as soon as possible and so Carolyn decided to send Christine Levinson an invitation to visit her already in a couple of days. Therese had strongly suggested that Carolyn should meet her daughter before their trip. If her meeting with Christine Levinson turned out to be a complete disaster, the research in Rome might not even be necessary anymore. And if it did go well, it would comfort Carolyn in case she got disappointed in Rome.

As they had agreed on, Therese rode to Sudbury at dawn, while Carolyn waited nervously for the arrival of her oldest daughter. Although it had been Carolyn’s explicit wish to meet her daughter alone, Therese felt like she was letting her down and she had to fight her feelings of guilt through the entire ride.

Fortunately, her dark thoughts were pushed away by a thrill of anticipation, as soon as she passed the gates of Carl’s farm in Sudbury. Eda and Beth were giddy with excitement when Therese suddenly appeared in front of their house and they quickly informed their other two sisters who joined them later. Martha’s farm wasn’t far from Eda’s anyway, but the fact that Meggy was visiting Martha for a few days was pure coincidence.

Her sisters were so excited that everybody was talking at once. Especially Beth hugged Therese again and again and it looked as if she never wanted to let go of her again. She proudly showed her around the farm and Therese met her nieces and nephews for the first time. Eda had two eight and nine year old girls and Martha had three boys at the age of four, six and eight. All five of them fell in love with Dannie immediately, while they were rather shy towards their aunt who they had only known by stories yet. But Therese patiently gave them the time they needed - she knew that she would come by more often from now on.

Therese’s sisters didn’t believe their ears when Therese told them she intended to settle down in Westminster. “As a woman, by the way,” Therese added and smiled awkwardly when her sisters’ joy turned to disbelieving amazement.

“Do you want to give up painting?” Eda asked skeptically.

“Will you get married?” Martha asked at the same time.

“No, none of these things.” Therese looked down at her hands, slightly embarrassed. “Do you remember the Countess of Essex?”

“Of course we do.” Beth nodded excitedly. “She saved my life.”

“Maybe you heard that the Earl of Essex died a few years ago …”

“That was difficult to miss,” Meggy nodded. “My master was invited to the funeral ceremony. He said it was a pompous procedure.”

“The Earl is a real hero,” Martha said with ardor. “He helped to free England from tyranny, so he deserved a state ceremony.”

“Exactly,” Eda agreed. “And his wife is our heroine, because she saved Beth’s life.”

“So you do remember her.” Therese smiled, unable to hide her blushing. “She lives alone in a house in Westminster now and since we’ve become friends, we decided that I could live there as well.”

“And you can’t do that as a man, of course.” Meggy nodded sympathetically.

“Unless you marry her,” Beth smirked, nudging Therese with her elbow. “Why don’t you marry her?”

“How can a painter marry a former Countess, Beth?” Martha rolled her eyes. “That’s just not possible.”

“And it’s not necessary either,” Therese explained. “The house is much too big for a single person, so I will keep her company. She’s an amazing woman and I like her very much.”

“And your commissions?” Eda probed. “Will you find enough work in England?”

“I won’t accept as many commissions as before,” Therese admitted. “But don’t worry. Every now and then Theodore Belivet will travel to other places and paint portraits.”

“I can’t believe that we’re finally together again!” Beth beamed. “I’m so happy that you’re with us again, Terry! I wish mother could see us right now.”

They celebrated their reunion deep into the night and in the evening the two husbands of Eda and Martha joined them as well. It was long after midnight when they eventually decided to call it a night and Therese slept in the same bed with Beth until she was woken up by the lowing of cows the next morning. “We always get up early.” Eda laughed as Therese appeared with half-open eyes in the kitchen. “But one gets used to that quickly.” She had already buttered some slices of bread for Therese and gave her sister a big hug. “See you soon, Terry,” she said affectionately, before she took her whey bucket and walked to the cows.

“Take care, Eda!” Therese shouted after her. “I’ll visit you again, as soon as I have moved to Westminster.”







* * *







When Therese arrived at the street from Carolyn’s house, the sound of the harpsichord already reached her ears from the far. It was a melancholic, tender melody, but the fact that Carolyn actually played the instrument again for the first time in years had to mean that her encounter with her daughter had gone well.

Indeed, Therese met a deliriously happy Carolyn inside the house. Her blue eyes shone with joy, but it was incredibly difficult to understand what had actually happened. Carolyn was still so much under the impression of the meeting that she wasn’t able to speak in whole sentences.

Eventually, Therese figured out from the bits and pieces Carolyn uttered, that the meeting had been somewhat awkward at the beginning, but a walk through the area had helped to make both women more relaxed. At some point, Christine had felt bold enough to tell Carolyn about her life and dared to ask Carolyn questions about her life as well.

Carolyn had answered all questions as honestly as possible which apparently helped to gain her oldest daughter’s trust. “Christine is a lovely, wonderful young woman,” Carolyn said proudly. “Very polite and quite well-behaved.”

“I know,” Therese agreed with a smile. “I’ve met her, remember?”

“I’m so glad that her mother doesn’t seem to mind if we see each other more often from now on.” Carolyn poured Therese a cup of tea and sat down on the sofa next to her. “Don’t worry, I’m very careful and I don’t want to intrude in their family life. I’m well aware that Christine’s life is there. I have to accept that.”

“The way you deal with all of this is just amazing.” Therese took Carolyn’s hands and kissed her palm.

“That’s only on the surface.” Carolyn leant her head against Therese’s shoulder, closing her eyes. “Only a few weeks ago, I had thought that life had nothing to offer me anymore. And here I am.” She sighed. “It’s really overwhelming and very confusing.”

“I missed you last night.” Therese kissed her tenderly on the lips. “I never want to wake up without you anymore, not a single day.”

“And I never want to fall asleep without you anymore, not a single night.” Carolyn suppressed a yawn. “To be honest, I didn’t sleep at all last night. Life is much too turbulent these days.”

“Maybe we should make up for the lost night?” Therese couldn’t believe that her heart still skipped a beat every time Carolyn looked at her.

“Now?” Carolyn wrapped her arm around Therese’s waist, considering her proposal.

Suddenly she got up from the sofa, drawing Therese with her. The tea got cold on the table as they went up the stairs, hand in hand.

“It was easier to rip off your clothes in the past,” Carolyn complained when she unbuttoned Therese’s dress. “Maybe we should think over that man/woman thing again.”

“Or you wear my old clothes to make it easier for me,” Therese whispered into her ear. “Carol.”

Carolyn laughed softly. “So you like the nickname?” she asked, slipping down Therese’s dress.

“Yes, very much.” Therese held her breath as she felt Carolyn’s hands on her inner thighs. “It sounds like music, and that’s what you are to me.” She pulled Carolyn onto the bed and kissed her. “An everlasting melody that I can’t live without anymore.” With a gentle move, she bedded Carolyn’s head on the soft pillow and lay down next to her. “You are so beautiful,” she whispered, spellbound. “I will never get tired of looking at you.” She drowned in the deep blue eyes which said so much more than words ever could. “I love you, Carol.”

Carolyn took her head in both of her hands and pulled Therese into a deep, long kiss that kept them both breathless. “And you’re my light,” she said softly. “Do you know that everything is dark without you?” She tenderly ran her finger over Therese’s lips that still vibrated from the kiss. “I love you,” she whispered. “My angel.”





* * * The End * * *

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