The Astronomer's Obsession

CHAPTER TEN

REDSTONE HALL, KENT

That was it? Celeste read Harry’s letter a second and third time. Like all his letters, it was brief—he was a man of few words—but he was coming to Redstone Hall. Her father would be pleased to hear it.

 

She checked the date on the letter. Two weeks ago. He was probably not far behind the mail. She didn’t have much time to decide how she felt. It was all well and good to exchange letters. Letters provided distance. But now that he was coming, that she would see him again . . . well. That changed things.

The Kiss That Wasn’t replayed in her mind. She had kissed and been kissed before. She was almost four and twenty after all. But no actual, truly-happened kiss had come close to what she’d felt with that near-kiss.

 

Had Harry felt it as well? And what if he had? An attraction between them was bound to disappoint in the end. She would return to Paris, and he to . . . wherever he would go next. And besides, it seemed Harry had developed a fondness for his Miss Pepper. The thought saddened her, and a moody blue haze tinged the edges of her vision.

 

He’d been adamant about Celeste not accompanying him to Berlin—quite emphatic in his refusal, she thought with a twist to her lips. He’d also been irritatingly immune to her attempts at flirtation, while she’d noticed everything about him.

 

Her awareness of him three years ago had reached an annoying level, especially after the Almost Kiss. The dark slash of his brows as he contemplated something from one of the Eleven. The way his eyes shifted from smoky silver when he laughed, to crisp icy shards when he was irritated. The way he appeared to see her. Not as the future wife of some nameless gentleman, but as a lady with her own hopes and dreams, thoughts and fears. No, time had not dimmed her memory.

 

Find it, Celeste. Whatever IT is that makes your life meaningful. Don’t settle. Those words had remained with her since that evening in the conservatory. They gave her courage when she hesitated. Courage to go to Paris. To apply and re-apply for admission to the Royal Academy. To dream of submitting her paintings to the Salon.

She enjoyed her life in Paris. She had friends and suitors. Alexandre. But what if, in the end, none of those were enough? What if . . . they weren’t it?

***

Celeste was distracted in the following days as she waited for Harry’s arrival. On Tuesday, she went to the garden to cut flowers, but realized she’d forgotten her basket and shears. Wednesday, she walked into the library to find a book, but then couldn’t recall why she was there. And when she sat to sketch on Thursday, she found herself gazing into empty space. Annoyed with herself, she went searching for her father instead.

 

“Father, why don’t we take a turn about the gardens? It’s a fine day, and the exercise will do you good.”

When Celeste called for Remy to accompany them, her father grumbled and crossed his arms. “I’ll not go if he goes.” And so, a ruby-liveried footman trailed them instead, ready to assist should the need arise.

 

Celeste suspected her father’s antipathy toward Remy stemmed from her mother’s overt admiration of the man. Surely her father could see their footman only had eyes for Odette. As pleasant as it was to watch Remy—and as much as he enjoyed being watched—he and Odette were shamelessly in love with one another.

 

Celeste paused often to admire a budding shrub or the sun-sparkled fountain. Each time, she made sure they were near a convenient bench so her father could sit and catch his breath. She’d almost succeeded in forgetting about Harry when they returned to the house, but then Jenkins informed them Lady Ashford was with visitors. Harry was here. And Herr Kraus, she presumed.

 

She patted her hair and checked her skirts in the hall mirror while her father watched her curiously. She avoided his eye. Was everything in order? Of course not. Stray curls dangled on her left side, and her face was pink. She’d forgotten her bonnet again. She debated returning to her bedchamber to right herself, but this was Harry. He’d seen her muddy and disheveled through the years. Her eagerness to see him took precedence over her pride.

 

She entered the drawing room on her father’s arm. Harry stood before the windows, sunlight pooling at his feet. Her eyes went to him first, before noting the others in the room. He was as she remembered, perhaps filled out a little more. His dark hair was soft and ruffled, as if he’d run a hand through it. Afternoon stubble darkened his angular jaw and her stomach flipped. His nose was straight and narrow. And his lips . . . his lips were perfectly formed, soft, the bottom lip fuller than the top. Imminently kissable. She swallowed.

 

His coat was not the latest style, but his shoulders looked magnificent. Solid and well proportioned. The kind of shoulders a lady would like to hold onto. To rest her cares upon. Where had that thought come from? She’d not rested her cares on any shoulder in quite some time. His grey eyes pulled at her from across the room.

 

She drew a slow breath to clear her mind and forced her gaze to an older gentleman with thick, greying tufts of hair. He stood behind the sofa where a handsome dark-haired woman of middle years sat. And next to her, a pretty lady perched on the edge of the damask cushion, soft hands folded in her lap. She had lovely blond ringlets arranged carefully atop her head and a delicate bow mouth. China doll skin and not a hair out of place. Celeste was instantly suspicious. Such perfection did not come without moral deficits.

 

Harry approached her father and bowed. “My lord, it’s a pleasure to see you again. Allow me to introduce my traveling companions.” He smiled as he presented Herr Johann Kraus, Herr Kraus’ sister Mrs. Pepper and his niece Miss Anna Pepper. Ah. So this was the lovely Miss Pepper, of the “fair countenance, agreeable manner, and pleasing figure.”

 

Celeste felt a wobbly, sinking sensation in her stomach. She fixed a serene smile on her face and tried not to think about her dangling curls.

***

Harry watched Celeste from the corner of his eye and his chest tightened. Words swirled around him as Herr Kraus and the Pepper ladies shared stories of their travels. He tried to attend to the conversation, but he couldn’t think of anything sensible to add. Herr Kraus and Miss Pepper watched him, wondering at his silence he was sure, but nothing could persuade his brain to work.

 

Celeste’s hair—not-quite-brown, not-quite-red—framed her blue-green eyes with soft curls. A tendril danced along her neck to tease her collarbone, and a delicate flush stained her cheeks. The dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose, which had made her look impish as a child, was charming on her now.

 

He couldn’t help looking at her soft lips. The memory of them was a vivid picture that lived on the edge of his mind, always there, never gone. He still didn’t know what they felt like. What they tasted like. She smiled brightly at the newcomers but avoided his eye. Why was she avoiding him?

 

He turned the button in his pocket. The smooth enamel and the faint texture of the painted rosebuds teased his fingertips. It had become a talisman, an object of idle motion. It allowed him to filter out external distractions and focus on the task at hand, except he was having a hard time focusing on anything now other than Celeste. His fingers twirled the button faster.

 

When tea arrived, Lady Ashford began passing around delicate china cups and plates of seed cakes. Celeste wandered to the bank of windows overlooking the terrace, and he followed.

 

“You’re looking well, Lady Celeste.” With the top of her head reaching above his chin, she was taller than most ladies of his acquaintance. Not that he was acquainted with so very many.

 

“As are you, Mr. Corbyn. Berlin agrees with you.”

 

They were Lady Celeste and Mr. Corbyn now? What had happened to the carefree banter of their youth? Of their letters just weeks past? He turned the button in his pocket again and thought of returning it to her. He almost pulled it out, but it would be silly to return something so trivial after this much time had passed. It was unlikely she even remembered it. She’d likely think him daft for keeping it.

 

“Miss Pepper seems very agreeable,” she said.

 

“Yes, she and her mother are both very pleasant. Herr Kraus sees little of his family as they’ve all left Berlin. He won’t admit it, but their visit has been a comfort to him.”

 

“And you, Harry? Have you found comfort in their company?” He looked at her questioningly. “Since you don’t have family in Berlin with you.”

 

He thought about his answer. He’d considered himself family-less since leaving his father’s home nearly twenty years ago. Even though his father had still lived at the time, he’d rarely spoken with his son, much less engaged in any meaningful discourse.

 

Harry looked at Ashford, seated in a large wingback chair. And Celeste, with whom he’d spent so many school holidays along with Julian. A strong yearning surprised him with its intensity. A wish that they were his family. No, wish was not the right word. Craving. That was better.

 

Celeste waited for his answer. He cleared his throat. “My work has kept me very busy.”

 

She studied him for the length of two heartbeats, then gave him a small smile and linked her arm with his. “It’s good to see you again, Harry.”

 

He sighed, relieved, and felt his shoulders relax. “Your mother looks well.”

 

“To be honest, I thought she would have returned home by now. She agreed to stay a month, and no more, but that was six weeks ago.”

 

“She’s in her element.” They looked to where Lady Ashford entertained her guests, laughing and drawing conversation from each in turn. Ashford wore a morose expression on his face as he watched her hold court. Harry wasn’t about to ask how her father was taking Lady Ashford’s return. That was a conversation no gentleman wanted to initiate.

 

“She does enjoy . . . everything. People, society, life. I always envied her vitality.”

 

Her words surprised him. Celeste’s spirit was genuine, unaffected. Impulsive at times, but she had . . . fizz. She didn’t have anything of which to be envious. How could she compare herself to her mother? He didn’t know how to put his thoughts into words, so he said instead, “Tell me about your father’s telescope project.”

 

Her eyes widened, and she squeezed his arm. “Harry, it’s the most impossible thing.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t know how he hopes to complete the work, but he means to unveil it at the Round Table. A lot of people will be disappointed when it’s not finished, not the least of which is my father. He becomes agitated when we speak of it, and I don’t know if it’s better to ignore it or try to humor him. Julian worries he’ll relapse if he’s upset. I’m not sure what to do.”

 

“Is it so impossible, then?” Harry believed all problems had solutions if one looked hard enough.

 

“I don’t see how it can be done. The tube is tremendous.” Her eyes widened. “I’m not an expert, but I don’t see how it can be placed into position, much less maneuvered into place. And the mirrors . . . I can’t even imagine the size of the mirrors that will be needed.”

 

Harry rubbed his jaw. He wouldn’t be staying long. He would leave for London soon to meet with the Commission members before they made their final selections. But memories of Ashford’s plans for his improved telescope intrigued him. He didn’t want to raise false hopes, but what if—

 

“Can you show me the site? I don’t know what can be done, but maybe we can look at it together and determine if there’s any help for it.”

 

“Are you talking about my telescope?” They started at Ashford’s question. They’d not heard his approach, but now he leaned on his cane and watched them both, an intense expression in his eyes.

 

“Father—”

 

“It can be done,” Ashford insisted, punctuating his words with taps of his cane. “My designs are complete. If anyone can execute them, Harry, you can.” He narrowed his eyes as he stared at Harry.

Execute? “My lord, I’m only here for a short while. I need to meet with the Transit of Venus Commission—” He stopped at the look of desperation on Ashford’s face. “But it wouldn’t hurt to take a look. Perhaps I can offer a suggestion or two.”

 

Ashford’s face cleared. “Celeste, you’re holding Harry much too closely.” He nodded at her hand, which still gripped Harry’s sleeve. Celeste dropped Harry’s arm, and he felt the loss of warmth where her hand had been.

 

“What’s this about a telescope?” Miss Pepper asked. She sidled next to Harry, her head not quite reaching his shoulder. She placed her hand on his other arm and batted her eyelashes. Her flirting had grown more outrageous over the last weeks, and his attempts to deflect it more uncomfortable. He’d looked forward to escaping her when he left Berlin, until Herr Kraus had informed him the ladies were traveling to London as well and would join them.

 

He didn’t wish to offend her or Herr Kraus, but he also didn’t wish to find himself married to Miss Pepper. He pulled his arm from her and patted her hand before explaining how telescopes worked. He’d found the best deterrent to her flirtatious advances was a lengthy scientific explanation. Her eyes clouded before he even got to the difference between refractive and reflective instruments.

When he finished, it took her a moment to catch up, then she clapped her hands together and said, “Oh, but we must organize a party to see this telescope.”

 

***

Excerpt © 2021 by K. Lyn Smith.

The Astronomer's Obsession is available in paperback and e-Book formats.

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