"Ouch," I grumbled, stubbing my toe on the same table that Ruby bumped into earlier.
That thing really was in a bad place. Of course, it probably didn't help that I was walking around in the middle of the night, with only a dim candle to guide me through the darkness.
Yawning, I pressed on and made my way to the kitchen without any further injuries. I set the candle down on the table and took a glass from the cabinet.
I had half a glass of water poured before my brain woke up enough for me to realize that the lantern on the table, shouldn't be there. And it most definitely shouldn't be lit, dim as it was. I'd been the one to make sure that the house was in total darkness before turning in for the night.
I set the pitcher of water down and stared, perplexed, at the mysterious lantern.
Who put it there and just left? Aside from the fire hazard, it was just strange.
After a few more seconds, a soft noise floated in through the window that I must have forgotten to close after Emily's cooking lesson. It wasn't crickets or anything else typically heard outside at night, so I got closer and concentrated on listening for it again.
I needn't have bothered to try so hard. The next sound was much easier to hear. Clear as a bell, a girlish giggle met my ears. It was Emily's giggle, if I wasn't mistaken.
Well, I guess that explained the lantern, but it didn't make me feel any better. I seriously doubted that she was out there giggling all by herself.
The next thing I heard, confirmed that. It was another laugh. A decidedly male one. Stephen.
My hands balled into fists and thoughts of getting John's gun flashed through my mind. I was frozen though, not at all sure of how to handle this. I'd been so obsessed with keeping watch over Emily to make sure she never had the chance to be alone with Stephen, that I hadn't considered what to do if I actually caught them together.
Do I make a huge fuss and wake the house? That's what my instinct was. To put a stop to whatever was going on out that window, as soon as humanly possible.
But in addition to waking John, it would wake the children and Mrs. Abbott as well. I didn't want the children asking questions about this, and Mrs. Abbott was a huge gossip, among other things. Even if nothing was going on, Emily's reputation would be in shambles if that woman got wind of this.
There was also the fact that Emily was nearly an adult. And if she'd managed to get away undetected at least once already, what would stop her from doing it again? Especially if I embarrassed her or made her angry.
No, doing things that way was definitely not an option.
Then what? I couldn't just let this go on!
I'd give it a few minutes, I decided. As long as I was hearing the hushed voices that now came between the laughter, they couldn't be doing anything too bad.
And maybe Emily would be coming back inside shortly on her own. She was a good girl. I knew she wasn't trying to get into trouble.
But I'd have thought she was smarter than this. Didn't she understand what could happen with a man like Stephen?
A few more minutes, I reminded myself. I could wait that long. If it got very quiet though, I was going out there to drag my niece in the house. And if that happened, Stephen would be extremely wise to get far away from here before I had the chance to get back to him.
It was killing me to just stand there, so I dumped out the water, took down another glass, and filled them both with milk. Whatever happened right now, Emily and I were going to be having a talk.
I sat at the table and set the extra glass on the opposite side. Listening to every sound, I fingered the glass before me, too nervous to actually take a drink.
After another minute, I began to think I was crazy to wait like this. I was just about to get up and go out there, when the voices stopped altogether.
I listened harder but only heard my own pulse in my ears.
Done waiting, I stood up, ready to charge outside and suddenly feeling as if that gun was unnecessary. I would murder him with my bare hands.
I quickly moved around the table, but stopped, hearing the sound of the door opening. Praise the Lord!
I waited tensely, until I saw Emily's golden head emerge through the doorway. Letting out a relieved breath, I took my seat at the table again, and waited for her to come the rest of the way inside and see me.
She was taking much too long to just to come through the door, and I realized it was because Stephen was still on the other side. I clenched my fists again, forcing myself to stay where I was. At least I could see Emily.
"Stephen, let me go," she whispered. "If my father catches us, he'll kill you."
"Not until you give me a kiss." His voice was quiet and playful.
"I already did," she giggled, weakly fighting for her arm.
"Not a goodnight kiss," he said. "I need one more to hold me till next time."
I felt like I could breathe fire, hearing him talk about a next time. If I had anything to say about it, there would be no next time. And if Stephen didn't hurry up and leave, he wouldn't be alive for a next time.
"Oh, alright." Emily laughed softly. "But just one more." She ducked her head back out the door, and I was very glad that I couldn't see what she was doing. Seeing that just might be enough to send me over the edge that I was already dangerously close to.
After much too long, Emily pulled herself through the door and closed it softly before clicking the lock. She turned and pressed her back to the door, a wide smile spread across her face and her eyes on the floor.
A few seconds later, she looked up and pushed off the door, ready to go back to her room, but froze when she saw me at the table. Her smile faded and her eyes grew wide.
We stared at each other for a minute, with Emily looking scared and unsure of what to do next.
Now that she was safely inside, my anger toward Stephen was giving way to my anger and disappointment with my niece.
Still I was unsure of exactly what to do about her. This was a sensitive subject, and one completely foreign to me. I hadn't given any thought to this kind of talk yet. Victoria was only nine, after all.
"Close the window and have a seat."
First things first, I decided. I didn't want anyone who might still be outside to hear our conversation. And pointing out the open window would let Emily know that I'd heard more than, I'm sure, she would have wanted me to.
Even in the dim light, it was impossible not to notice the color flooding her face at my mention of the window. But she obediently went over to close it before sitting across the table.
She had trouble meeting my eyes, as I watched her and tried to figure out how to do this.
"That milk's not poisoned," I said, picking up my own glass. It was probably best for both of us to relax a little first, anyway.
Emily smiled awkwardly and lifted the glass to her lips for a sip, glancing quickly at me and then away.
I knew that her anxiety was growing with every second I left the obvious subject untouched, but I was nervous too. I didn't want to say the wrong thing and drive her right back to Stephen, the first chance she got.
"What are you doing, Emily?" I began, reminding myself to stay calm. Approaching this with anger would only make her defensive.
"I didn't do anything bad." She said quickly, pleading with her eyes for me to believe her.
"I didn't say that you did," I pointed out, making her relax slightly.
"But, this..." I sighed. "This isn't smart."
She glanced at the table and back to me. I could see some of that inherent defiance creeping into her expression. She was clearly thinking I was only trying to control her.
"I know that you're just having fun and not really doing anything wrong," I said. "But, I don't think you realize how easily it can turn into something else entirely."
She watched me seeming confused for a few seconds before she understood what I was saying.
"I wouldn't-!" She started, blushing deeper than before.
"Plenty of girls have had that same resolution, and failed to keep it because they put themselves in very bad positions," I said. "I don't want you to be one of them."
She shook her head, in denial that it could happen.
"Sometimes men have a way of making you forget everything that matters." I remembered that all too well. "And believe me, it can be extraordinarily easy to forget when he makes you feel a certain way."
That was the first I'd ever even hinted at my past with any of the children. I wasn't proud of it and I never intended to even say that much, but I wanted Emily to understand that I knew what I was talking about.
Her mouth fell open in shock.
"Just, trust me. Alright?"
She nodded slightly, still looking surprised but not entirely convinced.
"Besides that, what if I had been someone else?"
I knew from the horrified expression that crossed her face, that she automatically thought of John, but I had other people in mind.
"Supposing your sister caught you. Or one of the other children. I doubt they would have waited in the kitchen for you to finish like I did. What kind of example does that set?"
Seeming ashamed, she looked down at the table.
"Or maybe someone else?" I wanted her to know just how lucky she was that I was the one to discover this.
"Alot of people live here, Emily. Any of the men could have come by and seen you. Or Mrs. Abbott. You know that she especially loves a good story to spread around. It wouldn't matter to her if her embellishments were true or not."
She put her hand to her mouth, starting to understand just how badly her harmless little meeting could have turned out.
"You won't tell Daddy, will you?" Her eyes were pleading again.
I couldn't really blame her for being worried about that, but she needed to feel much more than just a fear of being found out. I watched her silently, for a minute, thinking.
"What is Stephen to you?" I asked instead of making any promises. I honestly had no idea if I planned on involving John in this. At least for now.
She smiled awkwardly, and avoided my eyes, shrugging. It was a childish reaction, and not something I was in the mood for at the moment.
"You're not a child, Emily, so I'm not going to talk to you like one. But if you want to be treated like an adult, you need to act like it and give me some straight answers."
"Alright." She nodded, seeming surprised that I could think of her as anything but a child.
"What is he to you?" I asked again.
"He's...my boyfriend." She was embarrassed, but I was glad that she was trying to be an adult about this.
"And you're not allowed to have boyfriends, are you?"
She shook her head.
"Well," I shrugged. "I think you should go to your father, and tell him how you feel about Stephen. After all, you'll be eighteen soon." I prayed that my hunch about Stephen was right. What would I do if Emily were convinced that he loved her and wanted to marry her?
She looked terrified at the thought. "I can't do that."
"Is your father an unreasonable man?" I asked, baiting her.
She shook her head.
"Doesn't he love you and want you to be happy?"
She nodded and looked chastised.
"Well then, I think if you went to your father and told him that Stephen wants to court you, he'd understand." I continued, feigning ignorance to her distress.
"After all, you're old enough to be married. Or you will be soon. You know, your mother married your father at just sixteen?"
"I know, but-"
"Why do you think I've been trying to teach you to cook?"
She didn't seem to know what to say, but her discomfort was evident.
"Well?" I prodded after a few seconds. "That seems like the logical thing to do. Then you wouldn't need to sneak around like this."
"I can't," she said. "Daddy wouldn't like it."
"Why not?" I pretended to be naive. "Like I said, you're almost eighteen. Stephen does intend to marry you, doesn't he?"
She stared at the table, looking like she wished she could be anywhere else right now. But that was all the confirmation I needed. She wasn't even deluded into thinking that he had real feelings for her. It made all this so much worse.
"We...we haven't really talked about it..." She avoided giving me a real answer.
"You've known each other for a while, haven't you?"
She looked up and nodded.
I wasn't giving her an easy escape this time. I wanted her to vocalize this without my help. I just raised an eyebrow, waiting for her to spit it out.
"He...I don't think he's really...interested in getting married, just now," she finally said, glancing away.
"You want to get married one day, don't you?" I asked after allowing what she just said to sink in for a minute.
She looked up, wondering where I was going. "Of course I do."
"What kind of man do you want to marry?"
She seemed a little confused.
"Not what he looks like," I clarified. "But what kind of personality does he have? Most girls dream about the man they want to marry for a long time." I smiled. "And I know with all the stories you've read, that you've thought about this before. So, what is he like?"
She smiled. "He's smart and funny, and...kind..."
"And honorable," I supplied and Emily nodded.
"You know, an honorable man doesn't put a girl in a compromising position. Not on purpose. And especially not one he doesn't intend to marry."
Emily looked crestfallen.
"Putting you in the position that Stephen has tonight, isn't the sign of an honorable man, Emily. It's the sign of a selfish one. If any of those things that could have happened, did, he knows that you would most likely have to suffer the consequences by yourself. People wouldn't look at him like they would look at you. If he cared about you at all, that alone should concern him."
She stared at the table.
"Why do you think your father wouldn't like Stephen?" I asked, not satisfied with her remorse yet.
She looked up.
"Supposing he did want to marry you, would your father like him then?"
"Probably not." She admitted.
Emily didn't answer, averting her eyes again instead.
"Is it because your father loves you and knows the kind of man that Stephen is?"
She bit her lip and nodded.
"And because he wants the very best for you?"
She nodded again and a tear slid down her cheek.
"You respect your father, don't you?"
"Yes." She looked at me again, her eyes shimmering with tears.
"You aren't acting like it," I said softly. "I'm disappointed in you right now, but think of how much he would be."
"You won't tell him, will you?"
I watched her for a minute, gratified to see that it wasn't the idea of getting into trouble that worried her any longer. It was disappointing John.
"I'll make you a deal," I said. "I won't tell him about this, if you promise me that there won't be anything else to tell him about."
"I promise." She nodded.
I smiled and touched her cheek. "Good. You're smarter than this, Emily."
She gave me a small smile.
"You're so sweet and beautiful and when the right man comes along, I don't want you to have to regret what you might have done with the wrong one."
"I can't cook though," she joked.
"Don't I know it!" I laughed. "I think he'll overlook that, but you want to be able to give him your whole heart, don't you?"
She nodded and I watched her for a minute, noting again just how much she looked like her mother. It made me ache for Jenny. And considering what we were talking about, it made me feel immensely guilty all over again.
"Alright," I dropped my hand, pushed away from the table, and picked up my candle. "I think it's time we both got back to bed."
"Yeah," Emily agreed, taking the lantern and wiping the tears from her eyes.
"Aunt Kat?" She stopped me before I could leave the kitchen.
"Yes?" I turned.
"Thank you." She hugged me quickly before scurrying off to her room.
I smiled after her, and wished that someone would have been able to help me this way when I was her age.
"Ouch," I grumbled, stubbing my toe on the same table that Ruby bumped into earlier.