Author's Note: A follow-on from my piece 'Epaulettes' a few chapters back. Not necessary for this but it might help if you read that first :)


EPAULETTES II


The house was quiet as Steve lay in the warm embrace of Temple, unable to sleep. She had hoped that the events of the day - her brother's funeral; his wake; dealing with the family who wanted to disown her - would wear her out and help her slip into a deep sleep, but after a brief moment where she had broken down upon receiving Gerald's epaulettes, her mind had simply refused to shut down. Temple had drifted off not long after her tears had ended, his breathing evening out to steady in- and exhalations and calming her, but still she lay there staring at the patterns of light created by the moonlight over the top of the curtains.

Glancing over at Temple's profile, she started to ease out from under his arms and after a few moments stood up, successful in her attempt to keep from waking him. Her silk robe lay over the chair in the corner and she slipped it on over her nightgown, moving barefoot out into the hallway and softly shutting the door behind her before making her way towards the kitchen. She really wanted a warm drink but didn't know where anything was, nor did she want to disturb the other occupants of the house. The kitchen was very much Pryce's domain, so she limited herself to opening a few cupboards until she located a glass and poured herself some water, taking a seat at the kitchen table and looking out into the little kitchen garden that was Pryce's pride and joy.

"Is there anything I can get you?" came a voice, and Steve started.

"Pryce, you scared me!"

The manservant smiled apologetically, and she was amused to see how well put-together he was even in his dressing gown and pyjamas. "I'm sorry, Miss Trent. I heard movement and since the footsteps were much lighter than Mr Temple's usual gait I surmised it might be you."

Steve smiled. "Is he a regular night wanderer?"

"Only when he's having particular difficulty with a novel. I think the absolute quiet helps him think. Can I make you a hot drink?" Pryce started to move over to the stove but she stopped him with a shake of the head.

"No, thank you Pryce. I'll just finish this water and maybe see if I can get to sleep." She gave him a small smile, and he nodded knowingly.

"I believe you may want to take a seat in the conservatory for a while. It's most conducive for thoughts and the view is much better." He bowed his head and disappeared through the door almost as quickly and quietly as he'd arrived. His initial reaction to her had been less than enthusiastic when she'd first appeared at the house to talk to Temple, but apparently he'd changed his mind as he got to know her, and was now appreciative of a female presence in the house.

Picking up her glass, Steve moved through the house and let herself into the conservatory as he'd suggested. It was very chilly, the warmth from the sun on the glass long gone, but there was a blanket folded on a chair in the corner, and she settled onto the rather worn but extremely comfy settee with it wrapped around her shoulders. The blanket was obviously an accessory for Temple's late night wanders - Pryce's hint led her to believe this was one of Temple's favourite places to come when he needed to think or couldn't sleep, and she could certainly see why. Bramley Lodge sat on a hill, with the land one side sheltered by forest and the other, the side the conservatory was built, facing over a small valley with dense foliage. The late moonrise meant that the landscape before her was bathed in a silver glow, highlighting enough for her to almost see each individual leaf on bushes halfway down the slope. Nothing moved in the stillness of the night, not even a breath of wind stirring the trees.

Steve didn't know whether she had been sitting there for fifteen or fifty minutes, absorbing the peaceful surroundings and allowing her mind to ease, when the soft sound of footsteps interrupted her thoughts and she turned to watch as Temple stepped into the conservatory, his demeanour and appearance as unruffled as ever.

"Are you all right, Steve? I woke up and you weren't there."

She nodded, smiling at his concern. "I couldn't sleep and didn't want to disturb you with my tossing and turning."

"You wouldn't disturb me," he chuckled. "May I join you?"

"Of course!" She lifted the edge of the blanket and he took a seat beside her, putting one arm around her and tucking her into his side as he arranged the warmed material over himself until they were both surrounded. "I can see why you like to spend time in here when you can't sleep. The view is beautiful."

"Each room has a lovely view but this is very special," Temple agreed. "The sun rises directly over the valley." He tilted his head to look down at her, his eyes crinkled with interest. "But how did you know I like to spend sleepless hours in here?"

"Pryce told me earlier. He heard me in the kitchen and offered to make me a drink."

"Ah, good old Pryce. I've not managed to catch him out yet. He seems to know whenever I'm awake."

Steve laughed softly, and Temple allowed himself a moment to appreciate the way she felt pressed against him, her soft curves warm and inviting. She laid her cheek against his shoulder, the soft cotton of his dressing gown which he'd hurriedly thrown on to cover his bare chest cushioning her as she let her gaze drift down and they subsided into companionable silence for a while. The moon drifted inch by inch above them, creating new patterns in the shadows as new surfaces were touched by the light and others left in darkness. The chill in the air was becoming more pronounced as the night wore on but Temple and Steve were protected by the little cocoon they had created.

A soft noise drew Temple's attention back to Steve and he saw a glisten on her eyelashes that concerned yet didn't surprise him. "Hey."

She lifted her head reluctantly, and he saw the trace of tears down her cheek. He reached for her hand under the blanket and she willingly twined her fingers with his, his thumb stroking across the soft skin.

"You miss him." It was a redundant statement, but still she nodded.

"Just when I think I'm coming to terms with it, I remember that I can't speak to him, share something with him, or ask his advice. I wanted to talk to him about you - us - but..." she looked back down at the blanket, seemingly lost.

Temple pulled her even more tightly against him and rested his cheek against her head in a move reminiscent of earlier that evening. "What do you think he would have said about us?"

"I suspect he would have made a fuss but be extremely pleased. He liked you. When he spoke of you it was with respect. Despite what most of Scotland Yard think of 'outsiders', he appreciated your views and a lot of times I'd hear him muttering about what you would do."

Temple let out a delighted laugh and Steve nudged him affectionately. "I won't let it go to my head," he promised, and she shook her head in amusement. They subsided into silence again, their comfortable companionship enough whilst they watched the nature around them, and Steve was able to reflect. She still wasn't quite sleepy, but she felt more content with herself and where she was. The scene with her family had unsettled her and even Temple's reassurance hadn't quite done enough - the one person who she had wanted to talk to was no longer with them and she longed for one more chance to talk to Gerald, if only to say goodbye. The last time they had spoken she'd been busy and he had been on his way down to Evesham, so neither had had a proper conversation and had merely waved each other on with an affectionate, 'See you later'.

Temple had obviously been mulling over his own thoughts and he spoke again, addressing their earlier words. It was obvious he wasn't a man who often spoke his feelings and she could feel him tense a little. "What do you think about us?"

Sensing he needed a little enlightenment, she nudged him. "I proposed, didn't I?" He relaxed instantly, and she could feel another chuckle rumble through him.

"That you did." He tilted his head down and she looked up to meet his steady gaze. "When I asked you to stay earlier, I really meant for longer than just your time off." Steve didn't respond, and he cleared his throat gently before continuing, "What I mean to say is-"

"I know what you mean." She squeezed his hand and smiled brightly at him as he touched his forehead to hers in relief at not having to continue his fumbling attempts to articulate his feelings.

"Well then, perhaps we should seal your proposal with a kiss."

And before she could respond, his lips were against hers, feather light and soothing, the room disappearing around them and everything forgotten but them, the way they fit and the way their lips danced, fingers clasped and bodies close. Time slipped away and only the pressing need for air split them apart, but Temple seized the opportunity to move out from under the blanket and lift her easily into his arms, finding his way back through the house to his room where it was so much darker behind the lined curtains than in the bright moonlit conservatory.

Temple paused, almost uncertainly, as the door closed behind them and they were left standing by the foot of the bed with his hands resting gently on her waist, so she sought him out, fingers tunnelling through his hair as he grasped her to pull her flush against him again, the kiss this time with more than just comfort behind it. Steve felt something inside her ease then inflame as his lips moved from hers to her cheek, her jaw, her throat, her collarbone and down, soft touches and caresses that were later repeated with hands on bare skin as he lay entwined with her, gentle sighs mingling with short breaths and names exhaled in awe.

Hours later, as the dawning sun shone golden rays into the room replacing the earlier moonbeams, she realised that although the hurt and loss would never go completely, she now had someone new to love her, nurture her, and support her when she needed. Gerald would always be a part of both of them - not least for bringing them together - but that chapter of her life was closing and they were starting a fresh page of theirs.