"Mary." He whispered. Richard opened the door and stepped out. Clouds hid the stars and he could feel the air getting colder. Mud squelched beneath his boots.
"William. Maybe William came to get her and brought her home. That has to be it." He told himself out loud. There was a shortcut through the large park to the Havers estate. Richard set off through the path. He could hear merry voices from the tavern near his home but the bright light from their lamps faded as he made his way through the park. No children greeted him, nor anyone else. Frogs quieted as he passed the small pond while the occasional night bird called out to its friends. He was nearly through the park when he stopped.
Mary was there. By herself, sitting on the bench she always used. She was staring up at the sky and only wearing her night clothes and the simple sling holding her left arm. Richard stood near a young oak tree trying to make sense of this image in front of him.
Without turning her head, Mary called out. "I know you're there, whoever you are." She paused. "Oh, I know who you are. I know that smell." Now she did look around, directly at Richard. "Who are you?"
Richard stood out from the tree and walked toward Mary. His voice was uncertain. "Mary?"
She smiled for him. The Mary he loved. "Oh, hello Richard. I knew it was you." She turned to face the sky again. "It's beautiful, Richard. Sit with me."
"Mary... you shouldn't be up, Mary. You could... your bandages... What's beautiful?"
"The moon, Richard. Everything. The birds, the trees, the little green monsters in the pond, everything. Life, Richard."
Richard stood next to Mary, looking at her closely. Her eyes were wide and he could see drops of sweat along her forehead. "Mary, I understand. You nearly died. Yes, life is beautiful. I'm glad you're alive - more than you know. But your shoulder..."
A sudden laugh bubbled out of Mary. She threw her head back and laughed harder, shaking from the effort. "I can hear them, Richard. The people at the tavern, people in their homes. I can hear them. Everyone is so alive." She stood, suddenly close to Richard. Her voice dropped to a whisper and she stared up into Richard's eyes. "So alive, Richard." She leaned forward, pressing herself against Richard and kissed him. When his mouth opened in surprise, Mary's tongue found his. Her tongue twisted in his mouth and Richard suddenly couldn't breathe. He could feel her right hand against his back, working up and down. His sudden, shameful erection pressed against them. He tried to push her away but couldn't; she was so strong. Manic. He desired her.
Richard pulled his head back, gasping for breath. "Mary! We shouldn't!"
Mary spun away, laughing. "Oh, Richard! Shouldn't we? If I die tomorrow or if you die tomorrow then what have we had? A few kind words, a walk together but so far apart? The world is alive, Richard, and I can hear it all! The dogs have it right - when a bitch is in heat, she gets mounted. And, Richard." She grabbed his arm, pulling his hand onto her breast. He involuntarily squeezed it, feeling the hard nipple against his palm. She moaned quietly. "I'm in heat."
He jerked his hand back. "You're mad. You're shaking and the fever has overcome you. You're... We need to get you back. Back into bed."
She smiled at him again. "Yes, bed. Take me to bed, Richard. Mount me." She leaned in close to him. Her voice pitched lower, deeper. "I'm your bitch, Richard. Take... ARGH!" She screamed, falling to her knees while clutching her right hand to her chest. "R... Richard... h...h...help me. It hurts so much."
"Mary!" Richard kneeled down, picking her up. He staggered under her weight. "My god, Mary, you're burning up." Richard ran as well as he could with her in his arms. He kicked his door to open it and the widow shrieked in surprise.
"I need help! Mary was out at the park by herself! I woke and found her there and she's been... babbling, incoherent! The fever's worse!"
"Lord help us. Set her down, boy!" Widow Belford closed the door and hurried over to the bed. Richard set Mary down. Blood was seeping through the bandage on her shoulder again.
Mary moaned, twisting on the bed. Sweat soaked through her night clothes, outlining her lithe body. Her large, dark nipples pressed hard against the simple fabric. He could see the full, dark hair between her legs. Despite himself, Richard found himself harder than he'd ever been. Some smell was driving him nearly crazy. God help me and save Mary. He thought.
Mary's body shook and suddenly the sling snapped, freeing her left arm. "Hold her down, Richard!" The old woman yelled.
Richard leaned against Mary, trying to position himself around her nearly naked body. Mary closed her arms around him, crushing his body against hers. He found he could barely breathe and was astounded at her strength. Truly, the manic individual gains incredible strength! Father always said it was true but now I find out! He felt her cheek against his as Mary rubbed her face against him over and over. Slowly, she relaxed, settling down against the bed. Richard pried himself away, keeping his face averted. At the last, Mary held onto his hand, moaning quietly.
Widow Belford quickly covered Mary's body with a blanket. "Let her hand go, Richard. It's not right. Something here is wrong."
"I... I can't. I'm trying and I can't get my hand free." The old woman and Richard pulled and pried at Mary's little hand but neither of them could make her loose her grip. Finally, Mary murmured in her sleep, "Richard..." and tightened her grip.
Richard screamed in pain as his little finger snapped in Mary's grip. Mary sighed in her sleep and her hand fell away as her breathing steadied.
Richard's finger throbbed painfully beneath his bandaged finger. "Will you take turns with me tonight, Widow Belford? She needs someone to watch over her while she sleeps. In the morning I will talk with her to gauge her temperament. I have never seen her in such a state."
The old woman looked slowly from Richard to Mary. "Aye, I will. That finger of yours won't let you sleep, will it? I thought not. I'll sleep first but take care to give me a turn or you'll be worse for it in the morn." She marked a line across a nearby lit candle. "Wake me here."
"I'll give you your turn, miss." He sat back against the hard wooden chair near his small bed to watch Mary sleep. She was freshly bandaged but they left off making a new sling for her arm. She looked far better than she had this morning. He watched her lips move and imagined she was talking in her sleep. Lips that kissed me so passionately early. He remembered the feel of her lips against his, the way her tongue moved in her mouth and the feel of her body against his. Images of Mary in her night shirt came unbidden to him. His hand still remembered the soft feel of her breast. His manhood stirred at the recollection. I'm no better than one of the dogs she raises. Lusting after poor Mary when she's in this state. He'd seen women in various stages of undress before but always as cadavers or women committed to his father's asylum. Never... never Mary.
He pulled his latest copy of the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions journal to distract himself from his own thoughts. He was reading a study on the mortality in prisons when he caught himself absently stroking his erection through his pants. There was a slight smell in the air - a spicy scent making him flair his nostrils to take in deep breaths of the cloying smell. He slammed the journal closed and stood, pacing the small room. Mary muttered quietly under her breath, her hands moving slightly beneath the blanket. He took care not to watch her too closely.
He was thankful when the marked candle reached its limit. Widow Belford was slow to wake but took her turn readily. Contrary to the pain radiating from his finger, Richard fell into a deep, dreamless sleep quickly.
Richard woke to laughter and bright sunlight streaming through his murky windows. He sat up slowly, wincing at the aches his body had accumulated from sleeping on the hard floor.
Mary jumped up from her chair when she spied Richard sitting up. "Richard! You're awake! Miss Belford was only just telling me about your finger. Is it true? I'm so terribly sorry. Will you forgive me?" She was dressed in a cream color gown a little too tight for her frame. Borrowed from the widow's niece. He told himself. He did his best not to stare at her constrained bosom. The niece is certainly not as well endowed.
"Pah. Nothing to forgive. Invalids are never responsible for their actions when they're under duress. That is one lesson I'll gladly take from my dear father. My finger will heal. I'm more concerned over your shoulder." He stood.
"Miss Belford changed my bandage earlier. My poor Richard. Here, we've had our morning meal but left plenty for you. Please, sit." Mary reached out, placing her hand on Richard's back to guide him to the nearby table. Richard jerked at the unexpected contact but Mary seemed to take no notice.
"She's a strong one, your Mary." The old woman offered.
Richard "She's not mine, Miss Belford."
Mary patted Richard's hand gently. "Not yet." She said.
Both Widow Belford and Richard turned to stare at Mary but she'd turned away already to busy herself in the small kitchen. She hummed to herself while checking various shelves. An occasional 'tsk' made Richard wince at the imagined dust or food left out too long.
"H... how much do you remember, Mary?" Richard asked.
"Hmm? Oh, I remember the party. You really should have come, Richard. Elizabeth was there. And the other Richard. The stories those two tell! Well, certainly not fit to repeat in pleasant company but they had all of us laughing. I remember seeing everyone off and then walking out to check the kennel but nothing else until I woke this morning. Miss Belford tells me I was attacked but I feel fine. Stiff but fine." She turned to Richard and smiled her bright smile. Richard's heart skipped a few beats and he felt himself grow hard at the memory of her kiss. "You saved me, Richard."
"I... yes. Well. The very fact that you're up and moving is a testament to your own strength, Mary. I cleaned your wound and sewed you up but from a wound like that you should be abed for weeks, at least."
Mary laughed. "We're a hearty breed, we Havers." She reached out to tussle Richard's hair, resting her hand briefly on his neck with a squeeze before pulling it away.
"Mary, what...?" Richard started.
Widow Belford cleared her throat. "I've my own rooms to look to now your girl is on her feet, young Richard. If you'll see me to the door?" Richard stood when she did and led her to the front door. She pulled him through the open door to stand outside with her in the morning sun. Dew sparkled from nearby grass and leaves.
The old woman pulled Richard close to whisper to him. "You watch yourself with her, boy. I was at that girl's birth and I knew her and her parents. That's not the Mary I knew. She weren't glad to see me in your rooms with you asleep. There was a gleam in her eye that she'd never had before. And her such a gentle child growing up. I don't worry about you being alone with her anymore; I worry about her being alone with you. Good day."
Richard closed turned to find Mary sitting at the small table, smiling in a way he'd never seen before. It wasn't her mischievous smile but rather a smile that said she knew a delightfully wicked secret but wasn't planning on sharing with anyone.
"Will you sit with me, Richard?" She asked. Her smile didn't waver.
"I... Let's go for a constitutional, Mary. If you're able to stand and be about then the fresh air and walk will be good for you."
If anything, her smile widened. "All right, Richard. Let me get my hat."
Properly clothed, Mary walked past Richard to stand outside. The side of her chest brushed Richard's arm and the cloying smell was suddenly stronger. Richard involuntarily took a deep breath and almost leaned closer before catching himself. Is she doing this on purpose? Surely not. Not Mary. He wondered.
The air smelled fresh after an early morning rain and the bright sun helped to wipe away the memories from the previous night. They were soon walking together as they had for years, enjoying each other's company and talking of various things. Young children were playing in the park while some adults walked through on errands. Women sat in small groups gossiping and laughing behind their fans.
Mary let out a sudden laugh. Richard looked over at her. "What is it, Mary?"
"It's... oh, nothing, Richard." She glanced at a small knot of women on the other side of the park. Richard noticed her cheeks had turned slightly red. "My mind wandered for a moment and I'm just happy to be alive and well in this beautiful weather." She rubbed his arm gently.
Richard moved away slightly. "Mary, I've been meaning to ask..."
"Oh, Richard! Look! Isn't that the most delightfully colored bird?" She held onto Richard's upper arm with her right hand while pointing with her left.
"I... Where, Mary?"
"Over there, in the bushes. The prettiest little red bird."
Richard shaded his eyes against the sun but could make out little more than shadows and moving things. "No, I can't see anything." Could it be an effect of her wound? He wondered. Bad blood making its way to her brain? Perhaps I should try leeches on the wound.
"Pity. Oh, there it goes." A small red bird burst from the bushes, flying low to the ground before disappearing into the trees.
"Why, you were right, Mary. Phenomenal." Only then did Richard remember Mary's hand on his arm. He gently pried it loose. "Mary, I've been meaning to ask you about your sudden intimacy. I'm not comfortable with it and certainly not in public. We are not husband and wife."
Mary took her hand back, rubbing it slightly. "I didn't even notice. I'm terribly sorry, Richard. Perhaps... perhaps after what happened I'm instinctually needing to be reassured by human touch? I will try to watch myself, Richard. Please don't be cross with me."
Richard softened. Of course that was probably it. "No, Mary, don't worry. I shouldn't be so insensitive."
The walked together a moment more before Mary spied another couple walking their dog along the path. Richard tipped his hat to them. "Good morning."
"Good morning to you both." The other man told him.
"What a handsome male." Mary told them. "An Irish Wolfhound, is it?" She stepped closer but the large male backed away with a growl, head low to the ground and teeth bared.
"Ceasar!" The man exclaimed. He yanked on the chain but the dog continued to growl, its eyes locked onto Mary. "I'm sorry. He's usually a calm dog. I don't even take him hunting."
Mary knelt in front of the dog with her hand out. "It's quite all right. I have some experience with animals, especially dogs." She leaned forward and the dog growled louder.
"I must insist..." The man began.
Mary's lips pulled back slightly and her eyes narrowed. The flesh along Richard's arms broke out into goose pimples and he felt the hairs stir on the back of his neck. The dog's reaction was immediate; its tail drooped and it lay on its stomach before rolling over to show its belly. Richard could hear it whimpering slightly.
Mary smiled. "There's a good boy!" She rubbed the dog's belly vigorously. "I'm afraid I've excited him too much; I believe his bladder has got the best of him." The pungent odor of animal urine hit Richard just as he noticed the animal pissing on itself.
The other woman turned her head. "Oh, John, really. You must do something with that animal."
Mary stood but the animal continued to lay on its back. When the other man yanked on the leash, the dog was pulled onto its side but it refused to stand.
"I wouldn't worry about it." She told them. "Perhaps it smells my own dogs on me. I raise several mastiffs of my own." She offered her hand. "Mary Havers. If you ever need any help in discipline or raising your dog, please visit me and my family's estate. This is... my good friend Richard Miller."
Richard gave his own hand. "A pleasure. Pray excuse us."
They continued along the path together. Richard glanced back at the other couple to see the man yelling at the dog to stand.
"He ought not to treat him so roughly. Sometimes a gentle hand works just as well as a rough hand." Mary hugged Richard's arm to her side. He felt her bosom press against his arm. His erection was immediate and nearly painful. "Let's sit together and enjoy the weather, Richard."
Richard pulled himself away. "Mary, I'm thankful you're feeling better and I sympathize greatly with what has happened but you really must control yourself. People will have the wrong idea."
Anger flashed across her face. "The wrong idea about what? About what, Richard? That you're my betrothed? That I have feelings for you? That I want to feel your touch and be close to you? About what, Richard?" She was shouting near the end.
People nearby suddenly found other things to be interested in. "Mary! I... What is wrong with you today? In all the years I've known you, I've never heard you raise your voice." He could feel his heart racing at the sudden fury in her voice. A small bead of sweat rolled down his temple.
She leaned close to Richard and he could see she was gritting her teeth. "What is wrong with me? You've said you will marry me. When? I don't give a ... a damn about your studies or waiting for you to finish, for that matter. Why can't I show affection for you when I have feelings?"
Richard collapsed to his knees. Sweat poured down his face and he couldn't breathe properly. His heart pounded in his ears. Mary was immediately beside him. "Richard! What's wrong, Richard! I'm sorry! I don't know what came over me!"
Richard dug a finger into the neck of his shirt, pulling it away from him. "Can't... can't..." He gasped. He felt strong arms lifting him as if he were child in his parent's arms.
Mary's voice came from a great distances. "Hold on, Richard." He remembered nothing else.
Richard woke in his own bed to the chirping of birds and the sun low on the horizon. His whole body felt heavy but comfortable - as if he could sleep forever. He listened to the birds for a while before turning to his side. He froze. Mary was abed with him, under covers. Now that he was more aware of his surroundings he could feel her arm across his chest and the warmth of her body pressed next to him. Her eyes were closed.
Slowly, very slowly, he moved away from her to stand beside the bed. He was still clothed but his shoes were by the door. He remembered the park and everything that happened before he passed out but he did not remember how he came to be here. His heart felt fine now.
"Richard?" Mary's voice was confused behind him. "You're up."
He turned to look at her but immediately turned around again. She was wearing her pale night shirt and sitting up with the blanket around her waist. He could clearly make out her well formed breasts. Neither large, nor small but they fit her body well. Her dark nipples were hard against the cloth.
"For God's sake, Mary. What were you thinking? If someone had found us, I would be shamed for life."
"Ashamed of me, Richard?" Her new anger was back; he could hear it clearly in her voice.
"No. No, ashamed of my actions. It's not honorable for a man to be abed with a woman not his own wife. We are not children anymore, Mary. When we're married..."
"When!" Mary shouted. He heard her take a deep breath. When she continued, her voice was more calm. "I was worried about you. You've said before that the closeness of another person can help so I lay next to you. Let's not fight, Richard. I'm starving and you have no food here. You may turn around now. Your honor will be safe."