On a gray morning in Harley Street, only hours before she was to give the final lecture of her London visit to their peers, Mary ran her fingers through her lover’s hair. Sometimes, in bed, she and Lou would fall into reenacting their earliest meetings. Familiar paths of conversation would lead to familiar caresses that tingled like first touches—all uncertainty, exhilaration.
Mary would say, “I know they say I study psychiatry because I can’t stand a sick room, on account of what I went through as a child in India. But I never saw a sick room, before my cousin’s. The cholera that emptied my small world was like a rapture—uneasy whispers and people vanishing until a little snake and I were the only living things that remained. And I was quite well. Don’t say I can’t stand a sick room. I grew up in my cousin’s sick room.”
“What? Your cousin—hale, dirt under his fingernails, carrying the wind from the moor indoors in his hair—he was an invalid? I had heard, but…” She trailed off, dipping her dark head to kiss Mary.
Mary loved the press of Louisa’s wide mouth and full lips against hers; her own lips had always been thin. Still, her point, her pride, was too rich to lose in a caress. She pulled back and said, “He was an invalid, but only for a short time. I straightened him out, you see. Some sicknesses are in the body, but many are in the mind.”
Mary Lennox had come to town to present case studies from the first year of the Misselthwaite Asylum to various societies of doctors, researchers, and medical students, chiefly the Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane. The Association had begun several decades ago as a cozy gentleman’s club of wealthy superintendents who managed England’s mental institutions. As she looked out across the room, Mary reflected that it had not changed much since its inception.
The questions the members posed when she finished her presentation were polite, but as she made her way from the lectern through the crowd, she could hear skeptical murmurings break out across the amphitheater that marked their earlier applause as condescension.
“Miss Lennox!” someone was calling from behind her, ignoring her title. Beside her, she heard a young man exclaim to his companion, “And where’s this Dr. Craven, hm? Listening to a woman talk about treating hysterics is like asking a pig to explain how to make a roast.” He shook his head, and his friend laughed. “Perhaps the interest is meant to be ethnographic! Charles, these lectures are becoming too artistic.”
Mary walked past this without blinking. She’d persevered through medical school, for God’s sake; barbs like this couldn’t land, let alone pierce her dragon hide. But when she heard someone discussing Misselthwaite, she couldn’t help it. Her feet slowed of their own accord.
“That dreary old house?” the man was saying. “The wind howling at night like a poor lost soul would be enough to drive any person mad who weren’t already. What this field needs is more modern, efficient facilities.”
“Oh, it’s not like that at all,” she answered impatiently, rounding on the speaker. “There’s nothing like the fresh air from the moor and physical activity outdoors to make the body and mind well again. We’re scientists, not spiritualists or gothic novelists, surely. What patients need is attention and room to breathe, and we have plenty of both at Misselthwaite.”
The man narrowed his eyes and muttered something Mary couldn’t hear. She stepped closer. “What a joke,” he exclaimed, “to be lectured on utopian practices that are fifty years out of date—fifty years proven unworkable and inefficient! Kirkbride’s ‘humane’ tactics might work for Dr. Craven on a single ward of twenty patients. I’d like to see him treat an asylum of two thousand with fresh air and exercise.”
Mary opened her mouth to speak but was cut off as his companion leaned forward, eyes eager. “What you’re doing isn’t progressive in any sense of the word! Your model has been proven unworkable,” he echoed. “You’ll never be able to run a state hospital on a scale that can meet the needs of the indigent insane. You’d better stick to running your rate-paid ward for the very wealthy, cherry picking the cases you find interesting.”
His companion was nodding vehemently, muttering something that sounded like, “Stick to running your private resort.”
Mary raised her voice. She didn’t care if they were finished speaking or not, since they clearly weren’t extending her such courtesy. “No, it is you who are stuck in the past, while the rest of Europe and America make great strides, opening one research laboratory after the other. We do our patients a disservice—no, the entire economy and society a disservice—to run asylums like workhouses or prisons, to treat patients like their maladies are incurable. They can be cured. They can lead healthy lives at home, if they receive proper care from professionals while their madness is most acute.”
The man opened his mouth as if to argue, his mustache quivering; his companion smirked. “Well,” he began. Mary dug in her heels and raised her eyebrows. When she got mad, she got still as a cobra and just as vicious. Let them try to call that hysterics.
“Come along, Dr. Lennox.” Louisa was suddenly at her elbow, gloved hand tightening around her arm. “You’ll miss your train.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Mary said through gritted teeth—all the pleasantry she could manage. They nodded at her as Louisa steered her away, toward the door. Behind her, she heard the second man casually remark—not even angry, damn him—“Can’t fault a woman for having a reformer’s heart. Still, her idealism would be better served running a charity than an asylum.”
Mary Lennox, Colin Craven, and Dickon Sowerby had opened the asylum at Misselthwaite in 1900 on a very small scale: just twenty beds, thirty odd rooms in the East Wing of the house, out of hundreds.
The principles that inspired them—Thomas Story Kirkbride’s assertions that patients would better recover if they had pleasant accommodations and plenty of contact with the outdoors—were nearly fifty years in practice but, due to pernicious small budgets and overcrowding, rarely executed. After studying at Leeds with the most prominent alienists and researchers of brain pathology and histology in England and gaining practical experience alongside Dickon in the wards of the West Riding Mental Hospital, Mary and Colin had come to agree with the reformer who mid-century had declared, “A gigantic asylum is a gigantic evil and, figuratively speaking, a manufactory of chronic insanity.”
Like most reform projects, theirs was but a modest beginning, an experiment. If it went well, if they did good work and made advances, they were sure to find acceptance among London’s brightest scientific minds and funders among its most generous philanthropists; they could build their own experimental research laboratory, manage a state asylum, and design an innovative out-patient clinic according to their humane model. Colin had said so, his boyish face alight. He was far more idealistic than Mary, yet she was more ambitious. Dickon balanced them out.
At that thought, Mary’s heart dipped in her chest, like it had been replaced by a smooth, blue river stone. Mary sighed and undid the pins that held her hat, dumping it onto the seat beside her and running her thin fingers through her flat tawny hair, trying without success to loosen it without undoing all of Lou’s careful work; her scalp hurt from how tightly Lou had gathered it at the back of her neck, and it was making her head ache. The rail carriage was dark and desolate, its soot-smeared windows battered by a steady onslaught of rain. It made Mary think of her first journey from London to Thwaite Station with the indomitable Mrs. Medlock, some sixteen years ago. How alone she had been then, without realizing it. A fish hardly notices the water she swims in, her natural home.
Mary kicked up her heels on the bench across from her and slouched into her seat, pulling the collar of her traveling coat more tightly about her throat to keep out the chill. She didn’t dare read by lamplight with a headache, even with her spectacles, though she ached to dig back into her rereading of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Perhaps she could sleep. Yet nodding off was impossible—blueprint sketches, expense figures, and patient charts danced across the red of her eyelids whenever she shut her eyes, and the mutterings of the audience at her lecture played in her ears. Miss Lennox…Mistress Lennox…Mistress Mary, quite contrary…
Bugger Colin, she thought sourly, crossing her arms on her chest. Where was he and all his pigheaded optimism while she was being sneered at by all those ornery old sticks-in-the-mud and their wet-behind-the-ears students? What a stodgy gentleman’s club indeed. How it repulsed her!
You didn’t want Colin to come, she reminded herself, savage. If he had come, they wouldn’t have listened to you at all.
If he and Dickon had come, they would have spent the whole time mooning at each other, ignoring you altogether.
Her damnable pride. If they couldn’t expand the project, it would be her fault, for abjuring the most expeditious route. Still, it was originally her project, her proposal. What right had her cousin to claim it? Had he given the lecture, Misselthwaite Asylum would have been stamped his—his, his —in the public imagination, and she would have been a footnote. But we are partners, Mare, she heard Colin’s voice, pleading. Who cares what they think, when everyone in Yorkshire knows the truth of it? And the journals do publish our articles…
Then, because she was trying so hard not to think about it, Mary was thrown viscerally back into her parting conversation with Louisa, as they took a hurried tea together in Louisa’s parlor before Mary left for the rail station.
“Oh ho, so you and your cousin are feuding,” Louisa had remarked, as Mary wound down from a good rant about the Association’s reaction to her presence and Colin’s absence.
Mary shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
Lou raised her dark eyebrows. “Mmhm. Six foot two of nothing, with muscles like an athlete…big, clever hands…a gorgeous wicked mouth…” She leaned back in her chair and sighed up the ceiling, fanning herself with one hand. “Russet curls like a heroine in a novel! Mmm, nothing.”
“It’s not like that,” Mary said, flushing. Trust Louisa to twist a discussion about their work, their purpose, into a conversation about—well, fucking. Louisa had met Dickon just twice, in the spring, when she’d brought two of her own patients to Misselthwaite for Mary and Colin to examine. Mary had never been entirely easy about the meeting. There was something about Dickon that set Lou off into condescending airs, or maybe it was just that Mary had never learned to balance her London life with her Yorkshire life the way Colin had—but up until now, she had not regretted their meeting. “It’s not like that at all,” she said again.
“Oh, it’s not? I seem to recall a charming scene from last April, you and Colin with your backs up like toms in heat, flashing your big gray eyes at each other, with him in the middle slurping from his teacup.”
Mary set her cup down in its saucer with such force that the table shook. “He does not slurp his tea!” she shouted.
Louisa met her eyes, and for a moment, she looked triumphant, then merely exhausted. She had been toying with one of Mary’s ivory elephant figurines, the one she brought when she traveled for good luck. Now her hands fell to her lap, and the elephant’s finely carved trunk and little onyx eyes were hidden in a fold of her skirt.
“Give that here, if you’re going to play with it,” Mary said, more gently, holding out her hand. Face blank, Louisa moved from the chair across from Mary to sit beside her on the couch. “This one’s very old,” Mary said, of the figurine. “Did I ever tell you about the day I…”
“Yes, you did,” Lou said curtly. “Several times.”
“Well.” She sighed. “Look, Lou, it isn’t how you described, exactly. It’s just—it used to be the three of us, for years and years. Even when Colin and I were away in London, we managed. They’ve been my whole world. Even my work—they’re all ideas we’ve developed together, ideas we began developing in the garden when we were children, and it was all Magic. I’ve loved them since I was a child in a way I’ve never loved anybody else.” Mary flushed as soon as those words left her mouth, aware a moment too late of how they would sound to Louisa, of all people. Someone like Martha or Susan Ann would understand, but Louisa would take offense. Mary dropped her eyes from Lou’s and rushed on. “I know they love me too, and—”
“They love each other.”
“Yes. Of course.” She twisted her hands. “I’ve known that forever too. It just wasn’t talked about before now.” She tried to laugh a little, but it was a strained, sad sound. “What am I saying? We still don’t talk about it. I mean, before this spring, it had not—they had not—gone to bed together. It’s thrown everything off somehow. They’re a’ courtin’, and there’s no room for me in their nest.”
“Oh, nothing. Just a way I have of thinking of it. There was this robin when we were children—a sort of pet, but wild, more like a little person in a red waistcoat. He was as friendly as could be, until he was courting, and then—”
“Well, I think you’re being an ass,” Lou cut in. “It’s clear they’re trying to make it up to you, and you’re not having any of it. You’re off in a sulk, just like a child with gardens and robins and ivory elephants for friends instead of people.”
She pushed the elephant into Mary’s hands and stood, wiping her hands on her skirt as if to say, I’m done with this business, though she was probably just wiping off the dust that had gathered on the little figurine as it sat in the window the whole of Mary’s month in town. Louisa was careless with her things, her clothes, that way. Generally, it was something Mary liked about her, Mary whose frocks were always ripped and stained from both rounds and the garden. Now, she just found the gesture dramatic. “Go on,” she said, bite creeping into her tone, “Don’t let me stop your grand exit.”
Louisa narrowed her eyes. “It’s my house! You’re the one who’s going.” She turned and marched toward the door, only to pause there and declare, “You know, I would’ve thought you’d be happy to see me.”
“I don’t know why I should be,” Mary said crossly. “You’re never anything but trouble. You never even come to see the asylum. Just to meddle and poke about.”
Louisa’s lips were pressed together. “You’re infuriating.” She threw the door open—right in the face of the maidservant, who froze. Louisa glowered at her, then was gone.
“Dr. Lennox,” the maidservant said, hesitating in the doorway. “I didn’t want to disturb you, but your cab—it’s been waiting a quarter of an hour.”
Mary swore and drained her tea cup.
All that fuss, and she had missed her train too.
“Eh! Doctor Lennox. Tha’s got back,” the station-master said, satisfied, as he helped her move her luggage from the rail carriage to the brougham. He wanted confirmed the report he’d heard of the weather in London and was far less concerned with the success of Mary’s report to the Association of Medical Officers. She found this unexpectedly cheering.
Mary meant to sleep in the carriage. The moor soothed her, the brougham a rocking ship upon its ocean. Instead she slipped into a pleasant reverie. Perhaps, perhaps, her room would be bright and cozy with a fire. Perhaps Dickon and Colin would meet her at the door and bustle her upstairs to Colin’s study, eager to hear about her journey. Perhaps Martha would greet Mary on the ward with a bit of cheer, good news from the day and the prognostication of a quiet night. Perhaps Susan, little Susan Ann Sowerby, grown strong, stout, and into cleverest nurse they had, would insist on taking her coat with her nimble fingers, would scold her with dogged affection until she drank her tea…
There was a lone light above the entranceway, a dim grand hall empty save for Pitcher, stooped and ageless.
“Mr. Pitcher,” she said, brusque from tiredness—and because it was their habit with each other.
“Mistress Mary. There’s tea and a light supper in your room.”
“Dr. Craven…?” she asked, though she knew, without asking. If they were here, there would be no tea set out in Mary’s room. There would be tea in Colin’s study, the three of them curled up before the fire with Colin’s spaniel and Dickon’s tamed wild creatures, warm and laughing.
“Dr. Craven and Mr. Sowerby are at the Moor House,” Pitcher said, voice even.
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Mary couldn’t help pinching the bridge of her nose. Oh, she was tired.
“I believe Dickon said the rain will let up tomorrow, and they wanted to make preparations to bring some of the patients out.”
“I see. And how are the patients?”
“All abed, except for Richard Witby. He and Martha are sitting up in the ward parlor, I believe. We had a quiet day.”
“Good. Well, I’ll go up then.”
“Very well, Miss Mary.” He nodded to her, and she turned toward the stairs to the East Wing. Though he did not say welcome home, she heard it in his words. That was something, at least.
When they’d accepted their first patients, Mary had moved out of the tapestried rooms that had been her home since she’d first arrived at Misselthwaite, a child, and into the room that had belonged to the stiff little girl in the green brocade dress, who posed with her parrot on her finger.
It was helpful, being closer to the patients, who often had night terrors. The nurses knew to rouse Mary at any and all hours she was needed, and two nights out of three they banged on her door. Perhaps one night out of three Mary heard their anxious report and sent them running across the house to wake Dr. Craven, who specialized more than Mary in the various tricks the body could play to accompany the ailments of the mind.
But that was just the procedure for nighttime emergencies. During the day, the nurses invariably fetched Dickon first. Mary and Colin might have degrees in medicine, specializing in the burgeoning study of psychiatry, but Dickon was the one who could work with patients, who could calm them, help steady their whirring minds.
The large room, though conveniently situated, was lonely for Mary, after she’d half-lived in Colin’s sitting room and study, the rooms she’d grown up in. The solemn girl with her spoiled-milk complexion—some great, great grandmother, Colin supposed—was indifferent company, and even with a large fire in the grate, her curtained bed felt leagues away from the warmth.
Mary hung her hat, shucked her coat, and undid the buttons of her gloves and boots, stowing them all methodically and pulling on the sturdy shoes and one of the large, many-pocketed coats she liked to wear when working with the patients. Her vanity was a mess of notes and dried rose specimens, cuttings from the garden, but she dropped onto the stool in front of its looking glass for a moment to undo and brush out her hair like a great lady preparing for a dinner party. Like her mother or her aunt, perhaps. She favored neither, with her sharp little chin and sharper long nose, her high cheekbones and pale brows and lashes, which made the pretty gray eyes she shared with Colin less remarkable than they might have been. The fresh Yorkshire air brought color to her cheeks, and work in the garden tanned her pale complexion; when she laughed, Mary looked less old womanish—as Ben Weatherstaff had once said—and more like the clever, warm-hearted young person she was. But tonight Mary was neither smiling nor laughing, and a month in London had made her pale and pinched. Frowning at her reflection, she plaited her hair down her back and then moved on to her desk, which, in opposition to the vanity, was scrupulously neat. As Pitcher had promised, the tea tray had been set out.
Before she hoisted it up to carry to the ward’s sitting room, Mary spotted the note that was half-tucked beneath the silver tray.
Dickon’s carefully printed letters. Welcome home, Mare. Meet me in the garden for breakfast.
“And what if it’s pouring, hmm?” she said aloud to the empty room. Mistress Mary, quite contrary.
But it wouldn’t be pouring—it’d be a fair day, the sky scrubbed clean, a bursting blue. Dickon was never wrong about these things.
Mary carried the tea tray down the corridor and let herself into what, during the day, was a pleasant sitting room with south-facing windows and furniture selected for more comfort and beauty than the straight-backed chairs, heavy, dark wood, and Boschesque tapestries that had characterized Mary’s “nursery” sitting room in her youth. Then again, Mary had applied to Mrs. Sowerby, not Mrs. Medlock, when considering its arrangements and amenities. She had wanted her patients to have a welcoming space to gather. Oftentimes, when she came in here in the morning, she’d find Edward and Richard Witby arguing over a book, while Mrs. L laughed over her tea, dropping cake crumbs all over the floor. Amelia would be at the window seat, looking out over the gardens, and Martha would be urging the twins to eat their breakfast, while Catherine snored on the couch and James teased Colin's spaniel. A deafening ruckus, all good spirits one moment, though liable to shift into tears or blows the next. The unpredictability could be exhausting, but it kept the work interesting.
Now, the room was empty, save for Martha and Richard. Richard was Louisa's patient, a lanky fifteen year old boy, a barrister's son, who'd hit his head slipping on a patch of ice and had subsequently become fearful of people. He’d developed a habit of flying into rages and running from his family’s house into the street which made it impossible for his treatment to continue at home. Some of the nurses were afraid of him, despite his youth, but he always minded Martha. She was the only one who would sit up with him when he couldn't sleep, and he was the only one who could beat her at backgammon. They were sitting cross-legged on the rug before the fire, the backgammon board set between them. Mary set her tea things on a low table, then let herself slump into the chair nearest to them, so she could watch their game. Inveterate opponents, their movements were quick and vicious, difficult for Mary to follow. Mary stared at the brass bell on the rug beside Martha, easy to reach in case Richard's mood turned and she needed to summon the attendants in the next room for support.
“Eh, Miss Mary,” Martha said, shaking the little bone dice from her cup and deftly moving two pieces from Richard’s territory. “Welcome home. We expected you on an earlier train. I’m afraid your young men have flown to your moor nest—”
“—and you’re stuck with us. Poor company!” Richard laughed. Rattle, rattle went the dice in the cup, the dice skittering across the board.
“How are you, Richard?” Mary asked, taking in the fresh bandage on his hand.
“Better now. Think I’ll live. If you had seen me earlier, though…”
"He was havin’ a right fit,” Martha confirmed.
Richard flushed, didn’t look up from the board. “Broke a chair again,” he mumbled. “Got mad at something. Can’t remember what now, exactly.”
“Rivals our Dr. Colin in one of his youthful strops, he does,” Martha observed with a smile.
“Except you’re several times as strong," Mary said.
Richard was still flushing, but he now grinned ruefully. Colin was frank about his history with his patients, and Mary had yet to meet one who wasn't heartened by the knowledge that their beloved doctor had outgrown his own demons. But when Richard spoke again, he said, “That’s what Dickon said. He brought me round before I put a hole in the wall. Made it clear across the gardens before I felt those black clouds settling on me though." Click, click. Richard moved two of his pieces off the board. "Tomorrow—tomorrow Dickon says we’ll walk out twice as long.”
“Well.” Mary wondered what Richard had punched to hurt his hand. She'd have to ask Colin, when she saw him. It felt strange, being back on the ward without a thorough report from her partners and her staff.
“I told him that’s th’ spirit,” Martha said. Click, click, click. She rolled doubles and cleared a whole row. “Dr. Craven an’ Dickon said the whole lot of you are like to walk out if it’s a fine day.”
"The whole lot of us, hmm?" Mary poured her tea. There were extra cups on the tray, which made her smile. She was home. She passed tea to Martha and Richard.
Before a quarter of an hour had passed, the door opened, and Mary turned round—but no, it wasn’t a patient. It was one of the nurses—Susan Ann. She looked fresh and neat, though it was going on one in the morning, her uniform crisp and clean; only her wild curls, escaping from her chignon to flutter around her heart-shaped face, gave away the fact that she was finishing a long shift. “You lot still up!" she exclaimed, and then, seeing Mary, "Oh, Dr. Lennox, tha’s got back. Tha’ should be in bed too, after thy long journey!”
“We’re almost finished with this game," Richard said hastily.
She narrowed her eyes. “Nonsense. Tha’s just finished. I see thee settin’ up the board for another go.”
“We’re caught,” Mary said. “I, at least, better make my way to bed, unless I’m needed here.”
“I think I can sleep,” Richard said. “I’ll try.”
“Let’s get thee to thy room then.” Martha finished putting the game’s pieces away and snapped the board shut. She grinned at her younger sister, always proud of her mettle, and received a fond smile in return.
As they parted in the hall, Mary yawned and swayed slightly, and Susan Ann insisted on walking her back to her room. She carried a lamp, as if the lamps that lit the hallways weren’t enough.
“Aren’t you going to ask how it went?” Mary asked, after several silent moments, when they reached her room. She yawned again, and shrugged out of her coat.
Susan set the lamp down beside Mary’s bed, then turned and began to help Mary out of her traveling dress. For a heart-twisting moment, it was her night’s best solace—Colin and Dickon may have gone off without her, and Richard may have punched another wall, but here was Susan Ann, undoing her buttons, exactly as she had imagined in the carriage. Then Mary sighed and shook off the feeling. It wouldn’t do.
“I’ll ask thee tomorrow, when tha’s not half addled from want o’ sleep,” Susan Ann replied, showing a rare dimple as she smiled. She looked more like Dickon than Martha, solid and strong, piercing blue eyes and a splash of freckles across her snub nose.
Sometimes, when Mary looked at Susan Ann's freckles, she remembered that morning long ago when she had declared to Martha that Dickon was beautiful. She'd never changed her mind, not in the face of Martha's pleased skepticism, not as the years wore on and brought them as close together as family. When she looked at Susan Ann's freckles, Mary thought Susan Ann was beautiful too.
Susan hesitated, fiddling with the wick of her lamp, while Mary put on her nightgown and climbed into bed. Mary saw her watching as she shook out her braid, combing her hair with her fingers. Ever since Susan Ann had come into her room on an odd errand and had seen Mary and Louisa kissing, she had been pushing very gently, here and there. Nothing overt—lingering glances, touches. Mary wondered how self-aware Susan was, if she could sense how difficult it was for Mary to resist even her clumsiest advances.
Susan sighed, then she said all at once, “Shall I come under the covers—an’ we can be lyin’ spoons, an' you can tell me all about London?”
They had done that such a long time ago, when they were young and Susan Ann came to Misselthwaite to visit; she had slept beside Mary in Mary’s great bed until Martha roused her for their early walk back to the cottage.
“Oh! Well...” Mary paused, considering what she ought to say.
She was too well learned about sexual development and the pleasures of inversion (as both an academic and a practitioner, so to speak) to worry that Susan Ann was some pure creature, a tabula rasa, that she might—well, corrupt. Oh, and Mary wanted her. Louisa might tease her sometimes about her tendre, even dare to make witticisms about rustic tastes, but Mary's want for Susan Ann was real, a relentless feeling that deepened as they worked side by side. She wanted Susan Ann to push forward in that straight-forward way of hers, to straddle Mary with her thick thighs, lean over Mary and drape her russet curls in Mary’s face. She wanted to exchange confidences with Susan Ann in the dark, to tell her about the failures and amusements of London—to tell her maybe about her lonely heart and the way she counted Colin and Dickon’s letters (too few, too few).
Mary wanted all this, yet what she wanted more were the friends of her heart—for Colin and Dickon to be the ones lying beside her whispering, holding her close and safe. She wouldn’t be jealous, not like Louisa believed; she wouldn’t find them distant, unreachable in their togetherness if they were here with her. She’d feel safer, somehow, from her own night terrors and anxieties, with Colin and Dickon beside her, in love, their love solid and steady, something she could depend on. She could imagine a path forward where the two of them together made the three of them stronger.
But it wasn’t like that. They didn’t want her. They wanted to go off to the Moor House without her. There was no space for a well-worn friendship amidst their romance.
The part of Mary that wanted to balance the scales with Susan Ann, to find a love of her own to retreat into, couldn’t win against her reservations. She had tried to run away from her hurt these past weeks in town with Louisa, in a way, and it hadn’t worked. She wanted love, but she wanted friendship too. She wanted it all.
That had been her problem for a long time, she thought. She felt entitled to everything. She had so little of value though, as a child. It was a hard habit to shake.
“When I’m less addled from want o’ sleep,” she told Susan Ann, softly.
She watched as Susan Ann nodded, crossed the room, and left without looking back—oh, her brisk, efficient little darling—and Mary felt so lonely she could die.
The morning put Mary in mind of what Martha had said to her many years ago, on her first brilliant, blue-skied Yorkshire day: Yorkshire’s the sunniest place on earth when it’s sunny. Throwing back her curtains just after dawn, Mary couldn’t help grinning, dazzled. It promised to be a glorious day, her own personal storm clouds notwithstanding.
She went through the kitchens on the way to the gardens because when Dickon said breakfast in the garden, he meant Mary ought to pack a picnic. He would have, she knew, sated his appetite on simple porridge and the fresh air a good two hours before.
Unless Colin had kept him abed. Well.
There's no constant but change, Mary reminded herself, and nothing to do about change but to face it bravely as best I can. She forced a smile and found kind words to greet the cook, who dispensed the kitchen girl to pack up some pastry and flasks of hot coffee and tea in a bundle that Mary could tuck into her satchel.
“We’re about to bring breakfast up to th’ patients. Tha’s goin’ to th’ garden? An’ where’s Miss Susan an’ Richard an’ Edward?”
“Oh, I’m going out without them this morning—going to meet Dickon—”
“Very good, Miss Mary,” the cook said, and Mary stepped out into the sunshine.
* * *
As Mary was pulling open her curtains to admire the first strong rays of sun lighting up the moor, a half league away across the gardens and the first acres of wilderness beyond, Colin Craven was pulling his lover back beneath the heavy woolen blankets of the Moor House’s wide bed.
Dickon let Colin pin him, and Colin stretched his lean, wiry body to cover Dickon’s more muscled bulk, as if Dickon might try to resist with more than gentle reasoning and promises to make it worth Colin’s while if he could wait for later.
Colin hated waiting. He began to kiss with more hunger and less drowsy, sated sweetness. “Stay.” He nearly gasped the word as his cock brushed against Dickon's hip.
Dickon nipped his lip, laughing. “Tha’ knows I canna’.”
“Just a bit longer,” Colin murmured.
“Eh, that’s what tha’ said—” Dickon kissed him hard, sucking on his lower lip for a moment before pulling away—“before th’ sun was out, an’ half an hour after that.”
“Mm. Aren’t you glad you listened to me?”
“Tyrant,” Dickon said, pressing his face against Colin’s neck.
Colin’s cock was full and hard again. He rocked against Dickon until the other man moaned softly and gave in, wrenching one hand free to reach for him. He wrapped his calloused palm around both of them, clumsy but perfect, sticky and slick with the come that had only just started to dry on Colin’s stomach from their earlier fumbling in the twilit room.
The first time they had done this, Dickon had apologized for the roughness of his hands. He was always working with his hands, and they revealed it—broad and calloused, scratched by gorse or perhaps a playful fox still cutting its teeth. Colin had kissed away that apology fiercely, because, oh, he loved the roughness of Dickon's hands more than anything.
Colin licked into his mouth, then kissed beneath his jaw, bit the lobe of his ear, as Dickon sped up his strokes. The way he twisted his hand around Colin's cock, flicking his fingers where Colin was most sensitive, pushed him toward incoherence. "Beautiful," he gasped, rutting, frantic. "God, Dickon, you're so—"
He was coming again, while Dickon shuddered beneath him. Colin let himself collapse across Dickon’s chest. Their come was hot and prickly on his skin. God, they had made a mess, and it was wonderful.
All too soon, he felt Dickon press a kiss to his temple, then roll him gently to his side. He slid out of bed while Colin groaned in protest but returned a moment later with a cloth wet from the ewer on the table.
"Stop grumblin’, I'm makin’ thee tidy," he said, wiping the come from their bodies, and Colin stretched and relaxed into his ministrations.
When Dickon had resettled beside him, Colin wriggled close and pressed their foreheads together. “Stay,” he whispered. He loved to be this close to Dickon. The day he’d finally dared kiss him, he’d promised to give himself the pleasure as often as possible, to count every freckle on his snub nose. Before he’d loved Dickon this way, he’d felt sure of him—sure of all three of them—that they’d live and be together for ever and ever. The change had struck him suddenly—some violent alchemy when they’d finally, finally given into the yearning that had been building for years beneath their camaraderie. Now he felt the devouring need to enjoy every moment for fear everything would be snatched from him, like his mother’s love had been snatched away from his father.
“I have to meet Mare in th’ garden,” Dickon said gently, brushing a strand of dark hair from Colin’s eyes. “Tha’ could come with me.”
Colin groaned; it was his turn to hide his face against Dickon’s neck. “I’ll see her at rounds,” he murmured.
“We’re walkin’ out with th’ patients today, remember?”
Of course Colin remembered. He had been the one to insist they venture out through the rain to the Moor House for the night, ostensibly to prepare for the little expedition. Mary had been late coming home, and Colin had made a few suggestions as to how they might enjoy the unexpected windfall of time and privacy. Dickon had agreed, blue eyes intent and hungry, and Colin's blood had sung.
“You mun be kind to her,” Dickon said.
Colin sighed. “I’ve tried, and she’s been crosser than hell to me. More cross than if I’d actually been a prat, like she told me I was being. She doesn’t want to see me. You, maybe.”
Dickon was running his fingers through Colin’s hair. It felt lovely and made it terribly difficult for him to be vexed. Except then he said, “Tha’s jealous."
Colin felt the muscles in his jaw clench. "Easy for you to say when you’re the belle of the ball.”
"The belle of the ball," Colin repeated, louder.
"I’ve never been to a ball," Dickon reminded him.
"Everyone loves thee,” Colin said more softly, somewhat cowed.
“An’ I love thee.”
“An’ thy cousin.”
“Bugger it, I love her too. It’s not my fault she’s a stubborn—” He caught himself on an angry exhale, took a steadying breath. “It’s like she doesn’t want us to be happy, Dickon,” he said.
“Mm. Will tha’ look at me?” Colin lifted his head and propped his chin up on his fists. Dickon stopped stroking his hair and began to twirl one black strand around his finger. “Tha’ can’t need me to lecture thee on how she’s feelin’,” he said. “How she’s hurt an’ it makes her cross because she’s never been hurt like this since she opened her heart to others for hurtin’.”
Colin made a face. “Dickon…”
Dickon gave him a crooked smile, though his eyes were sad—or perhaps just thoughtful. “Eh, shall I start psychoanalyzin’ thee too?"
Colin groaned and slumped back onto the bed. He pulled a pillow over his face.
"That’s what I thought."
Colin felt Dickon move from the bed, and he heard him rustling around the room, washing his face and hands, putting on his clothes, doing up his boots. “Give me a kiss?” he asked, after several minutes.
Colin just groaned again from beneath his pillow.
Dickon picked up one of his bare feet from under the crumpled sheet and pressed a kiss to its arch. “I’ll see thee in th’ garden,” he said. “Mary’s bringin’ breakfast. Don't keep us waitin’ long.”
When he had gone, Colin dragged the pillow off his face and lay in the center of the bed, staring at the ceiling. Dickon had opened the curtains to let in the morning, so Colin could watch dust moats dip and swim in the air above him. After a while, he turned and pressed his face into the sheets, trying to inhale Dickon’s scent. He couldn’t. The smell of the moor fresh from yesterday’s rain was too strong—but somehow, equally alluring. Despite his intentions to continue wallowing, he found himself on his feet, hunting for his boots, digging in the wardrobe for a clean shirt. If Dickon wanted the three of them in the garden, he’d go to the garden. The sooner he did, the sooner he could get on with the day and see his patients.
Before he went out the door, he paused in front of the mirror beside the wardrobe to fix the flyaway mess of his wavy, black hair; it was tangled into a nest at the back of his head and falling into his eyes at the front. He looked rather debauched, which wouldn’t do—but which made him grin helplessly. Fascination more than vanity arrested him before his reflection: a season ago, he had dark circles beneath his eyes and a tight set to his curving mouth that spoke to the frenetic energy he lived and breathed while at his work. For all that he was hearty and fit enough—having applied himself to rigorous exercise programs since he had become healthy as a boy—the ward ran him down. But now, there was color in his cheeks. His complexion typically oscillated between the extremes of porcelain pale and peeling from sunburn, but this morning, he noticed a light tan, a healthy flush. He didn’t look thin or tired, and his eyes were bright. He had his mother’s huge, gray eyes—long-lashed, with something fey about their set and sparkle, according to Mary.
As he thought about seeing Mary, something twisted in his stomach. He’d noticed her unhappiness all summer, and he’d tried to talk to her, to spend time with her, only to be rebuffed. What more can I do? he wondered. He felt worn thin—he’d been doing the best he could to balance everything in his life, and it somehow wasn't enough. There was so much to balance: managing the estate and the asylum, treating the patients, doing his research, keeping up with his professional correspondence and reading, staying abreast of their rapidly developing field, spending time with Mary and Dickon, and now—well, spending time just with Dickon. He wanted every second he could get with him; he wanted twice as much time with him as their busy, peopled lives would allow—no, ten times as much. God, he thought, I want to carry him off to Spain—no, to some remote island in the Mediterranean for a weeks-long holiday spent entirely in bed…
He did feel guilty that the past four weeks with Mary gone, yes, he had missed her—but not much. He had enjoyed her absence. It had been a holiday, a honeymoon of sorts. Why should she resent that? He knew she had her fun with Louisa.
Colin walked the well-trod path from the Moor House’s yard with his hands in his pockets and his head tipped back, taking in the clear, wild brightness of the sky. The scrub brush gave way to the shady wood that marked the border between wilderness and cultivation. Beyond the door, Colin skirted the kitchen gardens and and the courtyards of flower beds where his cousin had skipped her first rope and made her first friends. His key to the garden was heavy in his pocket. This walk was second nature to him now; it had been several years since they’d had the Moor House built so that they could have their own space away from the machinery of the great house—and so that Dickon could have a home that felt more like a home.
His feet knew the way to the long, ivy-lined walk and the garden door. He thought about Mary, how she'd felt as a little girl discovering the garden, like she would just die if anyone else found out about the secret. Colin had shared in that feeling only briefly. The garden had never been his, only theirs. Colin remembered how one day, Mary had told him that even after so many years of seeing Colin teach about the Magic in the garden, the feeling returned to her from time to time—a fierce wish for the garden to be a secret they kept from the world. Colin needed the garden, his mother’s garden—there was more of her in it than in her portrait—but the patients needed the garden too. He knew Mary loved when they brought the patients into the garden and taught them about roses. He knew she loved when the patients learned to spot what was wick beneath dead-looking wood and slowly, slowly came home to the metaphor that they too were wick inside, beneath their melancholic or manic exteriors.
Colin pulled out his key; it turned easy in the lock now. He shut the door behind him and breathed in the quiet that was really birdsong, droning bees, and a light wind rustling the trees.
He found Mary and Dickon sitting together on the grass side by side, a light breakfast untouched before them. Their backs were to the rose bench. The rose bench—that monument to his mother’s death never failed to make something twitch in Colin’s chest, but he pushed the feeling away. He walked closer, waving and then feeling rather foolish about the gesture. Mary was quiet, twisting a blade of grass around her finger, and her mouth was set severely in a thin line, like she was straining to keep any sort of expression from her face. Dickon had a hand upon her knee. The peacefully droning honeybees aside, the whole scene had an air of an intervention. Colin began to feel drawn toward them less out of free will and more out of a looming sense of inevitability. He met Dickon’s eyes and tried to convey a silent plea. Dickon just wrinkled his nose and smiled—anybody else would have rolled their eyes—and Colin knew he was doomed to experience whatever confrontation was about to occur.
“Hello,” he called, trying for a jaunty, devil-may-care tone that just made Dickon raise his eyebrows. “Good to see you back, Mare.” He lowered himself to the ground beside them. Mary leaned forward and let him brush a kiss across her cheek. Her eyes flashed to Dickon. Colin realized that she felt just as cramped and cornered as he did, and he felt a measure of tension leave his shoulders.
Dickon put his other hand on Colin’s knee. “We canna’ do our work when we’re not united,” he said.
This was greeted by a wordless grumbling protest—from both him and Mary. They looked at each other.
“Look, this won’t do,” Dickon tried again, his voice beseeching. “We need to talk this out.”
“Lord, Dickon, must we?” Mary said. “There’s nothing to say—it’s fine—everything’s—” She trailed off.
Colin cleared his throat. “Dickon’s right. It’s not fine. Mary, it’s not what we intended, but we’ve—hurt you. I know Dickon can’t bear that, and I—well, I cannot either.”
Mary looked at him, face still carefully still. “You haven’t done anything wrong,” she said.
Colin made an exasperated sound; Dickon’s hand tightened on his knee. “I know that,” he snapped. “Mary, you look hurt. You can't deny it. You’re angry, plain as anything. Won’t you talk to us?”
She tipped her chin up. “Fine. I am hurt. Not because you’re together, but because you’ve shut me out entirely. Yes, even you, Dickon.”
“I’m sorry,” he said gravely.
“I’m sorry too. I hate it.” Oh lord, she was blinking away tears. Colin gaped, aghast. He had never seen her like this. Maybe, maybe, after his father's death, but even then, she'd been the strong one while he wept.
She blinked rapidly, and Colin said, “Please don’t cry, Mare. Please tell me—tell us—what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling.”
She gave a dry laugh. “Of course. You expect me to just open up to you, as if it’s all nothing, how much I'm hurtin'.”
“Damn it,” he said through gritted teeth. “I am trying. ”
“What if I speak first,” Dickon said suddenly.
They looked at him, and Mary nodded.
"Mare," he said. "Tha' means the world to me, an' thee always have, when we're here together an' when we're apart. Nowt will ever shift that. I want to make time to be in the garden with thee, and to go up to the Moor House, all three o' us. I know I'll keep wantin' time with Colin too. I'm goin' to try harder to make all o' those things happen. I'm sorry that it's been so..."
"Unbalanced," Colin offered.
He bit his tongue and watched Mary, waiting to see if she would speak. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and nodded. "I am so glad for thee. I just—everything changed so fast, an' I was scared. All o' the sudden I felt so alone."
Tears prickled in Colin's eyes now, damn it. Dickon was squeezing one of Mary's hands now. Colin reached out without thinking; her free hand found his. Dickon closed the circle by lacing his fingers with Colin's. This was something they had done as children, summoning the Magic. It felt right to do it now. Like their touch could be a conduit for understanding. Like, constellating, they could hold strong currents of grief, hope, and excitement that would otherwise overwhelm them, overturning their calm.
"Will you tell us more?" Colin asked again in a whisper. "How tha's feelin'?"
Haltingly, Mary began to speak—and then they each spoke, telling their stories of the past several months, their heartaches, pyrrhic triumphs, and bumbled good intentions.
After what felt like a long while, Dickon surprised them by climbing to his feet. “Go on. I don’t mean to disturb thee. I told Susan an’ th’ patients I’d fetch ‘em.”
He slipped away, stilling their protests and attempts to follow by ruffling their hair and by the simple expedient of walking off without arguing.
When he’d gone, they sat in silence for a long moment, and Colin wondered if he’d taken their candor with him, if perhaps their newly established openness would wilt without his tending.
Then Mary leaned back on her hands and said, “I’ll have to write Louisa and tell her we’ve made up. You should have heard her lay into me before I left for—for being so standoffish—for not mending things with you sooner. I missed my train.”
Colin laughed, then sobered. “Are you two on the outs again then?”
Mary shrugged. “Once she gives vent to what’s needling her, there’s seldom any sore feelings left. The venting clears it out for her. She’s always been that way, since we were in school together. All the same, I’m not sure I’m enough for her. Or if I want to be." She grimaced. "I suppose we’ll figure it out next time I’m in town.”
Colin thought about that. “It’s like us, when we fight,” he said, “We clear out the hurt we’re holding, and it makes things better, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” She hesitated. “Damn it, Colin, it’s still hard. My heart feels lighter, talking to you about it all, but it still hurts. I wish things were how they used to be, and then there’s these past few months of distance between us I can’t change.”
“Look, it’ll get better,” he said, awkward because he—well, he felt the same way.
“Don’t,” she said. “It’s okay.”
They sat in silence for a moment, then he tried again. “How did it go with the superintendents?”
Mary groaned. “It was more like we had expected than we had hoped. They don’t care about the work,” she said bitterly. “They say the system is what it is—a thousand beds packed in a building for two hundred, and more people lined around the corner needing admission—and yet anyone who wants to change it is hopeless idealist. The rest of the world is progressing, and we’re in the dark ages.” She paused. “I wish you had come.”
“But you said—"
“I know.” She swallowed. “But you have this light about you.”
“It’s you! You can command a room. It’s like when we were children, talking about the Magic. You had this way about you. Everyone had to listen to you.”
He snorted. “I can issue princely orders, I know.”
“Colin! Don’t! I’m serious. I still mean what I said before. I think if you had come, and they didn’t listen to me at all, it would have made me so livid. I’m glad I went and that you—that you and Dickon got to have this time together. People who are—newly in love should have that.”
“Nest building,” Colin said softly.
“Yes. Only—I can feel both ways about it, can’t I? That’s all I’m trying to say, that I missed you there. You and Dickon.”
“We’re better together. I didn’t mean to shut you out, Mare. I’ve just been—excited.” He cleared his throat. “Consumed. And hurt, I think, when it seemed like you were upset. I wanted you to support us, and I was foolish, Mare, in wanting support to mean you put up with all sorts of slights—that you’d withdraw to the sidelines of my life and just stand there approving, ready whenever I needed something—”
“But I should have been happy to do that,” she argued. “Three’s a crowd. You would have done that for me.”
He laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re forgetting that first holiday you went off with Louisa. I didn’t speak to you for a month.”
“We were nineteen.”
“I loved you so much, Mare. I couldn’t bear it.”
“That’s how I’ve felt these past few months,” she said. “Just—don’t shut me out. I can bear witness to your togetherness and the times when you go off together. God knows Dickon’s put up with us so much in that regard, when we went to school. Just don’t shut me out entirely.”
They shook on it—a funny solemn gesture, like they really were children again.
"C'mon," Colin said, retaining her hand to pull her to her feet. "What do you say we set about this expedition..."
* * *
So they walked out through the gardens and onto the moor with the patients—a slow procession of men and women young and old, nurses, attendants, medical officers, a boisterous spaniel, a tame rabbit, and a crow. The gardeners of her youth would not know what to make of such a queer group—some running and shouting, positively bursting with energy, others shrinking and timid, one wheeled in a chair. They did not make a beeline for any destination but moved at a slow pace, the pace of bird watchers and bug watchers, of folks who would learn the ways of fruit trees and flowers. Reaching the moorland, they settled down in a sunny clearing amidst the heather and the gorse to have a picnic of tea and sandwiches. When they were done rambling around the moor, they went back to the garden, settled among the roses, and had a second picnic. At one point, an extra chair was fetched for a patient with neurasthenia; at another, Richard Witby did go off on James, punching and swearing. Not everyone was fully present in both body and mind. But these and other mishaps were dealt with calmly and capably by Mary, Colin, Dickon, and their staff. All and all, it was a good day, full of happy exclamations and surprises. Voices called “Dr. Craven, look here!” and “Dickon, wasn’t I tellin’ thee Dr. Lennox would want to see this!” On their way in from the moor to the gardens, Amelia and the spaniel discovered a motherless baby fox washed out of her den by the rain. It was decided that Dickon would carry him home in his coat and that they would all take turns feeding him from a bottle in the parlor after supper.
Mary, Colin, and Dickon looked back and forth between each other throughout the day—tentative, smiling. Mary caught Susan Ann’s eyes on the three of them appraisingly.
Everything wasn’t all better, Mary reflected. She thought about her lonely summer, how her heart’s bruises wouldn’t vanish overnight. With time, those bruises would become less tender. Rupture and repair. She had to trust in that magic, because wasn’t that the line of work they were in, after all? They were healers, and she had to believe things could get better.
After a hectic week jumping back into life on the ward, two things happened. The first was that Mary got a letter from Louisa, and the second was that Mary came down with a cold.
An unshakable languor settled over her in the morning while she was dressing. When she started aching and sneezing, she gave up, rang for a maidservant, and went back to bed. She knew she could rouse herself if she had too—if there was an emergency, if the ward was burning down. (She probably shouldn’t joke about that, lord.) But she’d learned the hard way that overexerting herself when she felt weak only made things worse; besides, she needed to model wellness and taking good care for the patients. That was what Susan Ann always said. With the fire stoked and a considerable amount of tea and toast at the ready on her nightstand, Mary settled back into a mound of pillows and opened her letter.
“Dearest Mary,” she announced to the ceiling in her most Louisa voice, clutching the sheets to her chest before reading them. “I am terribly sorry I called you an ass. I miss you dreadfully. Love, Louisa.”
The letter’s actual contents were a lengthy rundown of the talk around Harley Street about Misselthwaite (interest was piqued if not wholly positive) and a request for a consultation, followed by a lengthy conceptualization of a young woman with persistent dementia and chorea.
There was, however, a brief postscript— I trust you have come to an understanding with your young men by now. Write quickly and tell me how it went, or I may be forced to come up to Yorkshire and see for myself! I was talking to the wife of that mustached superintendent at a dinner the other day—you remember the man I drug you away from before you went to fisticuffs?—and in addition to being charming, she has an intense interest in spiritualism. Of course I told her I have an intimate friend who happens to live in a great gloomy old house that must be rife with spirits! So wouldn’t that be a lark, if I came up to Misselthwaite with Dr. Righteous and his missus in tow? You could rustle up some ghosts for us, couldn’t you Mare, if it meant we got to give the good doctor a tour of the ward?
PPS—I do miss you, you ass.
“Good lord,” Mary said, dropping the letter on the sheets so as to resist the urge to twist it in frustration. Louisa was liable to drive her insane one of these days. Yet her words had certainly served their purpose; Mary would waste no time writing back about the state of things at Misselthwaite and how Lou was on no account to bring anyone to Yorkshire for a seance. She began to giggle as she read the postscript over again.
There was a light knock on the door, and Susan Ann stepped into the room. Mary promptly sneezed, and Susan’s expression shifted from shy to her particular mixture of fond and fierce. “Eh, Doctor Lennox—”
“Mary,” she corrected, for the hundredth time. She dropped her letter onto the bedside table beside the toast.
“Mary. Tha’s knocked thyself’ up workin’ too hard.”
“Well, tha’ can come fuss over me, then.”
Susan Ann hesitated for just a moment before she undid her frock, unlaced her boots, and slid into bed beside Mary.
“Oh, you’re warm,” Mary said gratefully, and Susan Ann nestled closer, wrapping an arm around Mary’s waist and tucking her chin over Mary’s shoulder, so Mary could feel her breath tickling her ear.
There was another knock on the door, and Dickon poked his curly head into the room. “What’s this I heard about this bein’ a sick room?”
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “I just need to rest. And to be cheered up. It’s awfully gloomy in here.”
“Don’t listen to her, Dickon,” Susan Ann said, laughing, her voice low and sleepy. Comfortable. “I’m not gloomy. Come over here.”
“I brought th’ fox cub,” he confessed. He pulled back his coat to reveal the cub snuggled against his chest.
“Well, bring her here!”
Dickon undid his boots and climbed into bed on the other side of Mary, placing the cub gently atop the quilt in the gulf between their bodies. She chirped, turned, and settled, instantly quite at home.
“Oh,” Mary breathed, stilling, after a moment of watching the little creature. “She’s asleep.”
“She’s not th’ only one,” he said.
“Oh, is Susan—? She worked so hard this week. She sat up with Richard twice. She works too hard,” Mary said.
“She’s not th’ only one,” Dickon repeated.
Mary snorted and rolled her eyes. They lay quietly, then Mary told him about Louisa's letter. As she relayed Louisa's parting messages, she began to giggle again, and Dickon laughed with her.
"Eh, she's a wild one," he said. Then he asked, “What does tha’ love about Susan Ann?”
“Dickon!” Mary gasped, eyes widening; she felt her body tense, a searing flush descending upon her as her awareness flew to Susan Ann, who she could feel leaning against her.
“It’s alright,” he said. His calm, steadying voice and intent blue eyes. “She really is sound asleep.”
The mortification lifted, but only slightly. “You don’t know that,” she hissed. “She could be—”
“I’ve been knowin' her since she was a babe in arms,” he said gently. “An’ sleepin’ next to her in our one room cottage from then till I was sixteen.”
Perhaps sensing her heart was still beating at a racing tempo, Dickon reached out and ran his fingers along the curve of her jaw. He touched her forehead where her brow was creased in a frown as if he would smooth her worry away. “Hear that snufflin’ sound? She snores a bit, doesn’t she? An’ I reckon she’s kneadin’ against tha’s back with her hand right now, like a kitten against its mother.”
“Oh,” Mary said. “Yes.” She felt herself flush deeper and saw Dickon grin this time, sensing with his Dickon-magic the subtle shift in her discomfort. Then she thought about Susan and Dickon and their siblings sleeping in their one room cottage while she stretched out in the center of her giant, curtained bed, a spoiled, spindly girl, demanding that Martha dress her. Sometimes the hardest thing about the shame she felt around the Sowerbys was how kindly they held her in her discomfort, how they did so much to comfort her , when it ought not to be that way…
All she could do was reach out and press her palm to Dickon’s, to clasp his hand while she offered an honest answer.
“I love how capable she is—how clever. She’d soon as do a thing that needs doing twice over than stop and complain about it. She’s so independent.”
“She never carries a grudge because she sees to the quick of people, their intentions, but she can hold a boundary something wonderful. She doesn’t let anyone walk over her. Sometimes I think she has the magic you have with animals, except for understanding people. She ought to be the doctor, instead of me, the way she can conceptualize the patients’ cases so neatly.
“But Dickon,” she concluded, awkward. “Tha’ knows it’s not like that between us.”
“Mmhm.” His wide mouth curled into a smile, and his fingers tightened on hers. “Don’t thee worry,” he whispered. “I’ll keep thy secret. Till it’s ready to blossom an’ grow.”
“Dickon,” she whispered back, leaning forward slightly. They were conspirators again, and she felt such a warm, wonderful ache in her heart, curled up and safe beneath the blankets with him, his sister, and a downy baby fox. “What does tha’ love about Colin?”
“So many things,” he said at once. “Everyone always says I have a gift with livin’ creatures, that I know their ways an’ tame ‘em when they’re wild. Well, he’s like that, to me.”
“It wasn’t always that way,” Mary said.
“No. He learned a lot from thee standin’ up to him, and from th’ garden, and from workin’ with th’ patients at West Riding when he was just grown. He’s gotten so steady.”
“But not too steady!” She snorted. “You like him fanciful, talking a mile a minute with a his hands, all excited.”
“I do,” Dickon confessed, and it was his turn to blush; she could swear that was a bit of a blush across his tan freckled features.
“He loves me somethin’ fierce, Mare,” he said, “For all that I’m me and haven’t gone up to Oxford.”
“Eh, it’s true. I haven’t.”
“You know just as much as he does, as I do! Hell, you know more, the real things, the important things, half the time. When Mrs. L’s trying to choke herself or Richard’s ready to bash his head against the wall—the way you talk to them—it’s not Magic, Dickon, it’s not talent—it’s art, and if anyone says it’s not a learned thing, well, I’ll—”
“I know, Mare,” he said. “I know. But what I’m sayin’ is, he loves me as I am.”
Mary let the rest of her speech go with a long exhale; she bit her lip. “Well, that’s—that’s lovely,” she said.
Dickon smiled at her.
There was a tapping on her door, and Mary looked over Dickon’s shoulder to see Colin.
“Speak o’ the devil,” she whispered, as Dickon raised a finger to his lips and nodded toward his sister, who snored softly and pressed her face against Mary’s shoulder with a little moan that was far too distracting, given the circumstances. Colin’s dark brows shot up, and then he nodded.
“Oh, so not only do we have ghouls an’ ghosts for th’ summoning, we have to contend with devils too?” Dickon said then, rolling back toward Mary with the roguish grin that stood in for his booming laugh when there were creatures nearby that needed soothing and quiet.
“Don’t you start on that.” Mary pinched arm where his shirtsleeves were rolled up to expose tan skin and firm muscles.
“Tha’ wounds me,” he said, wrinkling his snub nose at her.
“I’ll pinch your ear next if you don’t behave.”
“I’ll tickle thee, and tha’ll make a fuss to wake Susan Ann,” he countered.
Well, he had her there. She’d sooner cut off her sleeve—hell, her whole frock—like the proverbial pharaoh than disturb Susan Ann, than disturb the cozy hush that had transformed her big drafty room into someplace safe and precious.
Colin had shut the door softly and crossed the room on light feet. Mary watched him shuck his shoes and his coat. Dickon turned toward him as he climbed up onto the bed and stretched himself out over the other man with a sigh. Dickon’s arms came up to wrap around his waist at once, and Colin leaned into him for a kiss.
“I should have asked before I clambered up all a mess from my rounds—” he blinked his pretty gray eyes at Mary—“if there’s room for me?”
“For thee, always,” she said, and she reached out to run a hand through his mussed black curls. She and Dickon, petting his silky hair together.
They whispered for a while longer before they drifted one by one to sleep. When Mary woke, hours later, the fire had burned low, but it didn’t matter. She was warm from Susan Ann at her back with an arm around her waist, warm from Dickon and Colin snuggled close, their hands clasped together.