He was at a wedding, with family all around. The church spire reached into a blue sky, with clouds, it seemed to Liam, placed just right to frame the architecture. He inhaled the rich smell of earth, newly green trees and fresh-mowed turf that formed the perfect background for the white stone steps and the brilliant flowers carried by the bride and her attendants. The men stood in gray morning suits, a solid backdrop for the cluster of pink- and blue-dusted bridesmaids, all young and effervescent as champagne. Everything shone clean, crisp and elegant.
The young man realized the others in his family would remember it exactly like that. They were town people mostly, this day at the English country church only a trip to a picturesque spot suitable for the perfect wedding.
For young Liam it was different. Sure, he admired his cousin Rafe. But it wasnâ€™t worth enduring all this folderol. How could Rafe stand it? The gauzy-eyed bride, the chittering attendants, and Rafeâ€™s glazed look. Totally boring.
Still, Liam couldnâ€™t miss this chance to see Arbotâ€™s Abbey. The trip to his cousin Rafeâ€™s wedding near the village was a pilgrimage. Someday, somehow heâ€™d own a piece of this land. If he couldnâ€™t earn enough as an artist to keep it, heâ€™d farm it himself. Maybe heâ€™d be a farmer. But it was in this place he would put down roots.
Then a single instant taught Liam why his otherwise clear-headed cousin Rafe would consent to the nonsense. It was a private moment only Liam might have seen when a young member of the Archer clan performed some antic and everyoneâ€™s attention focused on the little boy. But Liam caught the bride look up at her new husband, her look a pledge, full of affirmation and hope. Rafe had taken her hand and now, set a light kiss on his brideâ€™s ring, promising with his own eyes.
Swallowing and red-faced Liam had to look away, anywhere, and saw the youngest flower girl, Daphne, who couldnâ€™t be more than eight. The little girl turned her face towards his, her gray child-eyes solemn. And knowing, as if she understood what they had both witnessed. Then she looked clear inside him and uncovered the unexpected effect of that exchange between bride and groom on his own heart.
Maybe it was the juxtaposition of so many female Archer profiles: old, middle-aged, teens and babies, all with the same fine cheek bones. Or more likely his artistâ€™s eye that nagged him to see, compare and capture. But for whatever reason, he could see Daphne Wells-Archer and picture her at 10, or 14 – his own age- or as she grew to young womanhood and flowered.
Looking at her fine brown hair above clear eyes, it didnâ€™t take much imagination to project a Daphne grown up and beautiful. No, handsome. Sheâ€™d never be beautiful. Her nose was just a little too long, her teeth not quite straight. But he could see her in years to come, middle-aged, old, even, with those same clear eyes, fine cheekbones and elegant posture.
As Daphne scratched the side of her nose, Liam noticed the grace of her hand and slender, feminine fingers. The next moment, he watched her dart away from the others to chase one of the church cats. Fat, black and gray, the cat kept to the shadows and delicately treaded the worn stone path around the side of the church to the graveyard. Dropping her basket of petals, Daphne caught him. Then she gathered the large cat in her arms and sat on a stone bench on the shady side of the church.
Liam sauntered over. The cat purred against Daphneâ€™s satin bodice as she stroked him. Liam realized he was only just old enough to have outgrown doing just what the girl had. He smiled a little at himself and when she looked up, he winked at her like a co-conspirator.
He leaned over. â€œDonâ€™t worry. I wonâ€™t scold you about spoiling your dress.â€ Daphne grinned at him and hunched her shoulders as she hugged the cat.
They spent ten minutes listening to the cat purr and then walked in the dappled sunlight between the gravestones. In lively contrast to the somber yard, the extravagant lace hem of her pink dress fluttered over her ballet slippers. She remembered her basket and fetched it, dropping a couple of petals on one of the graves.
â€œCome on. Itâ€™s time for pictures.â€ Liam sent her a rueful look and she sighed.
â€œWell, if I must.â€ Her small voice floated against the whisper of the leaves. He laughed.
â€œWant a ride back?â€ Without waiting for an answer he lifted her up, basket and all, to place her on his shoulders, her white-stockinged legs dangling on each side of his face. She giggled and wriggled to get her seat ensconced.
â€œGet your ruffles out of my eyes and donâ€™t fidget.â€ This made Daphne giggle even more. He held her legs securely above the knees as she showered him with petals, laughing harder, her voice cascading, bell-like and innocent.
The cat trailed them back to the front of the church. â€œHere you are, Daphne and Liam! Good, you found her.â€ The feathers on Aunt Sophiaâ€™s ridiculous hat bobbed as she nodded to him.
â€œWeâ€™ve been keeping each other out of mischief.â€ He lifted Daphne from his shoulders to set her down.
Daphne smiled again and curtsied. â€œWe kept ourselves from being bored.â€ Aunt Sophia laughed.
Liam bent over Daphneâ€™s hand and said, â€œGet over there and look dignified for a moment, you imp. Youâ€™re part of the picture.â€
â€œOf course, silly. Iâ€™m in the center.â€ She marched off to stand patiently as they all posed and posed again.
Liam wondered what Daphne would be like in 15 years. Wondered if sheâ€™d still be wise beyond her years, would still see inside. And would her laughter still wrap itself around his heart? He vowed to find out.