"You're joking, right?" I asked in a deadly quiet voice.
"No," my mother said in a huffy voice.
"But you said-"
"Don't argue with me! Don't you know what this means, Bryant?"
"What?" I snapped, balling my hands into fists.
"She could get pregnant," she breathed. "If she gets pregnant, she'll have to marry Daniel!"
My jaw dropped. "Mother, he raped her!"
She glared at me. "I'm aware what he did. But I know she's been meeting with that Thomas in secret! It's not good for her to be seen with him!"
I shook my head. "Don't you see? She has a chance to fall in love! You're going to take that from her?"
"Love doesn't exist," she snapped and I ran a hand through my hair.
"So you led her on," I whispered. "You put on an act and-"
She pointed angrily at me. "Don't you dare tell her! If you do, I'll deny it." She strode to the door of my dad's old office. "This is what's best for everyone, Bryant. Now go. Lauren is waiting for you."
When I was able to walk again without it hurting, I changed into a dress Bryant helped me pick out. I was going on my boat ride with Thomas today and I was incredibly nervous. Did this mean my mother had finally accepted Thomas for who he was?
"What's bothering you?" I asked, looking at Bryant in the mirror as he braided my hair.
He was glaring at my hair as if it had personally insulted him. His hands shook as he worked and several times he dropped the clasp he was going to use at the end.
"It's nothing," he said quietly. "The-The trial for Daniel is being pushed back."
I looked away sadly. "Can we not speak about him? I'm looking forward to my time with Thomas."
"Yes. I'm sorry, dear sister." He stepped back. "You're ready."
I smiled and kissed his cheek. "Thank you. Will you be able to walk me there?"
He rolled his eyes playfully. "Well, of course I am!"
I giggled and he walked me out. I waved to my mother and she beamed back. It felt wonderful having her on my side again. I smiled at the ground as we walked. She hadn't shown affection towards me in over 10 years. It was a shame, though, that such a thing had to come about from being violated by Daniel.
When we reached the docks, Thomas was checking on the sails of a rather small boat. I grinned at him as we approached and he returned it, wiping his forehead.
"Here you are," Bryant said happily. "When do you think you'll be back?"
"Sun down," Thomas said then hesitated. "If that's okay."
"Of course it is," Bryant said. He kissed my cheek. "Have a pleasant day."
I smiled but it faded as he walked away. His face was angry again.
"Are you ready, Elvira?" Thomas asked, bringing me out of my thoughts.
I turned and any thought of my brother's behavior disappeared. He looked incredibly handsome in his plain clothes. I knew he felt self-conscious around Bryant and I but I loved how simple he dressed and how it complimented him. He took my hand as he helped me into the boat.
"Do you know how to sail?" he asked and I giggled.
"Not at all," I answered, keeping my parasol on my shoulder. "I watched my father do it but he never explained it to me."
"Why not?" he asked while he untied a thick rope from a large metal piece attached to the dock.
"I was too young," I said.
I tucked my skirts around me as he pushed off. Pretending to fan myself, I admired him as he pulled on another rope attached to the pure white sail. His arms flexed as he did so. I had never known a man to be as strong as he was. Even my father didn't have the muscles Thomas had acquired over his years doing whatever he did before he joined us at River Springs. He was starting to get some stubble on his chin and, though I was never a fan of facial hair, it only enhanced his looks.
Suddenly, he sighed in disappointment.
"No wind," he said, pointing to the still sail.
"So we can't go out to sea?"
"No, we can," he said, ducking under his seat. "It just requires rowing."
He pulled out two paddles and I giggled. My father had used those a couple times. He would pretend to threaten me with them if I was being unruly, chasing me around the docks. Thomas was staring at me.
"Sorry," I said. "I was just remembering. My father would take my brother and I out to the water and I would pretend to jump in. He then threatened to smack me with the paddles." His face went terrified. "Oh, he wasn't being serious!" I said quickly and his face relaxed.
"It sounds like you had a good relationship with him," Thomas said while he put the oars into their holders.
I smiled at the pristine water. "I did. I miss him very much."
"Can you swim?" he asked.
"Yes," I nodded. "When I turned 8 he would take me to the water, row out a bit, and teach my brother and I. Can you?"
He beamed. "Yes. In fact, I even taught Megan."
"How is Megan?" I asked, biting my lower lip. "Is she still going to school?"
He sighed. "Yes. I didn't want her to but, when I mentioned her not going back, she looked so unhappy. She cried and I couldn't tell her no. Besides, Daniel is locked up. Mr. Pink came out of retirement to be the principal and promises me that he'll keep a special eye on Meggie for me."
The boat was small enough for me to reach over and hold his hand. He had stopped rowing now that we were a decent distance away.
"I am very sorry," I whispered and he smiled sadly.
"It wasn't your fault, Elvira."
Clouds had rolled in and I closed my parasol and put it under my bench.
"It feels like it," I admitted, looking at my lap. "I feel as if I should have accepted his proposal. But then I would be in a loveless marriage and that's not what I want."
I wiped some tears away and looked up. His eyes were glinting strangely.
"What?" I asked.
"If you keep crying, I'm going to have to stop you."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
He held both of my hands, his face having gone serious.
"You are too beautiful to cry, Elvira," he whispered. "You deserve to be laughing and dancing."
"It's been a long time since I've been able to laugh," I sighed. "And I- What are you doing!?"
Suddenly, Thomas swept me up in his arms and grinned mischievously at me. Before I could speak, he jumped and we were plunged into salty water. I kicked back to the surface, spluttering. He surfaced after, laughing, and I splashed him.
"That was awful of you!" I said but I was laughed, too. "You could have at least warned me!"
"Ah, but that would have taken the fun out of it," he said, leaning back and lifting his legs so he was swimming on his back. "I've wanted to do this since I moved here, you know."
I bit my lip in concentration as I did the same thing he was doing. It had been my favorite way to swim when I joined my brother and father on their trips into the water.
"Why haven't you?" I asked.
"Busy working," he answered simply. "I want to keep Megan happy."
I turned to look at him in the water slightly. He was looking at the cloudy sky with a complicated expression.
"Money isn't everything, Thomas," I whispered.
"With all due respect, Elvira, it's easy to say when you have it," he whispered back. "Ever since our parents died, I've wanted nothing more than to dote on that little girl. She deserves it. I want her to have new dresses, to be able to have new shoes, to have a full belly. I haven't even been able to give her a real birthday gift."
I reached over and held his hand shyly, kicking my legs a little so I stayed afloat.
"You're a wonderful guardian, Thomas," I said and he sighed, moving so he was upright again, holding onto the boat.
"I don't feel it," he admitted, getting back into the boat.
I felt guilty for ruining such a wonderful moment as he helped me back in. I wrung out my dress, trying to find a way to atone for my mistake. He was wringing his shirt out over the side of the boat, too, and I threw caution to the wind. I leaned over and kissed him. He hesitated but kissed me back.
I put my arms around his neck and felt him ask permission to deepen it. I admitted him immediately and he pulled me close. The taste of the salt from the ocean mixed in our mouths and I tightened my hold on him. He ran his hand into my hair, undoing the clip and braids, and I had a sudden image of Daniel shoving me on my back.
I broke away with a gasp, my heart pounding in fear.
"Elvira?" he whispered, taking my hand. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," I said, putting my other hand on my head. "I just-just feel faint, is all."
He sighed and pulled me to the sit beside me. "You don't need to lie to me, dear Elvira," he said, hugging me. "If it still frightens you, we will go slower."
I buried my face in his neck. "I'm so sorry, Thomas! I've ruined such a beautiful day!"
"No you haven't," he promised. "We still have the sunset to watch and a wonderful-"
Our combined weight, however, caused the small boat to tip and we plunged into the water again. I swam back to the top to see Thomas laughing, trying to get the boat upright. I looked to the left to see a small basket floating away as I grabbed the oars.
"Well, there goes our dinner," he said but I giggled.
"Like you said," I whispered, holding onto the boat beside him. "We still have the sunset."
He smiled and put his forehead on mine, wrapping his arm around my waist under the water.