The Gentle Waves

Dunrobin, Scotland, 1873

The Honourable Mrs Kendall Prince pressed her cheek to the cold glass of the carriage window and stared out. She could see the sea - her constant comfort in times of distress. But it was not the sea she knew, not the blue-washed sands of Holkham, the dreamy tidal flats of North Norfolk. This was rugged, grey, forbidding sea to match the rugged, grey, forbidding Scottish highlands - the only connection being its still eastward aspect. She sighed inwardly: she was a long way from home and, moreover, she felt utterly lost.

"Not brooding again are you, Old Thing?" her husband enquired. She dragged her face towards him, essayed a wan smile.

"Perhaps I have much to brood about."

"Bosh: you're nervous, that's all. Perfectly understandable, but you're going to be fine."

"I just think, maybe it's a little too soon?"

"Nonsense: I am not ashamed to be seen with you in Society, and that is all that matters. Besides, being up here keeps us away from wagging tongues down south - two birds with one stone, as it were."

Kendall tried to put more conviction into her smile. Dearest Everard - sweet, solid, dependable, yet sometimes frighteningly naive. How had he survived all those years as a Member of Parliament, without shedding every ounce of his integrity? Yet here he was, even now, sticking rigidly to his principles, doggedly supporting her as he once supported his constituents; never knowing the turmoil she was going through.

He took a glance out of the landward window, and his eyes narrowed.

"I do believe we are almost there," he said carefully.

She craned her head to follow his line of sight. Sure enough, looming in the distance, silhouetted against iron autumnal clouds, was Dunrobin Castle. Although 'castle' scarce did it justice: this was a palace; a dizzying conglomeration of windowed turrets and ornate roofs that seemed more appropriate to a fairy tale than an armed conflict. Kendall pulled back, as if by avoiding seeing their destination, she might somehow postpone her fate.

"Tell me again the details, Husband," she blurted anxiously, "I swear my mind has gone utterly blank."

He sighed, but it was a patient, understanding sort of sigh.

"You no doubt recall young Campbell Danson MP," he explained. "He has the dubious privilege of being regarded as my protege, though his rise has had for more to do with his own talents than my patronage. The Duke of Sutherland, meanwhile - as you will also no doubt recall, a prominent Whig supporter - has a young daughter whom he wishes married off at the earliest convenience. Danson being still a bachelor, well, it seems to me a most appropriate match. I suppose I am acting as a sort of go-between: I know the boy's character well enough; now I seek to determine the girl's."

"And the subtext, Darling? I assume there is a subtext."

Everard Prince's face clouded, just a fraction.

"To keep us bonded, my dear. The Whig faction is diminishing in influence, day by day, hour by hour. Cracks are beginning to show, and if we can no longer be unified by politics, then perhaps it is better if we are unified by blood."

Kendall slumped back against her headrest. As she did so, she caught sight of herself, obliquely reflected in the window, a ghostly visage pale against the dark churning backdrop of the sea. She had no pretensions to great beauty: her face was broad, somewhat square; with high cheekbones, a protruding chin and a powerfully delineated jaw. Large, rather mournful brown eyes, heavy browed, flanked an incongruously delicate, concave nose; below these a tight yet prominent mouth, slightly downcurved. The entire effect would be quite masculine, were it not for a frothing aurora of wild umber curls that, whether as now discreetly pinned up, or falling free about her shoulders, softened every sharp edge. No, 'twas not her face that separated Kendall from other women, but in tandem with other, more prominent attributes it pushed her from being merely handsome to distinct desirability. Even at 35, those attributes retained their allure - indeed, they had been much the cause of all the trouble. Kendall closed her eyes firmly, shutting off this train of thought. When she opened them again, they had arrived.

Once the petty rigmarole of disembarking from the carriage, of their luggage being spirited away by assorted domestics had been gone through, they were received in a dazzlingly ornate parlour by the Duke himself (or "plain James Munroe" as he liked to style himself at home), who greeted Everard like the old friend he was. To Everard's wife he was politeness itself, albeit with a curt edge so subtle yet so tangible it brought a flood of fire to Kendall's cheeks. She was still recovering as the Duke beckoned another figure into the room.

"This," he said, with a slight flourish, "is my daughter, Sherrill."

Of the many qualities - good and bad - that Kendall might ascribe to herself, jealousy was not high on the list. And yet, confronted with this young highland lass, she felt a jolt of envy so vivid her eyes might have turned jade with the force of it. It wasn't just that Sherrill Munroe was beautiful - there was something almost impudent about her beauty, an impudence only heightened by the dainty, natural beauty-spot poised just above and left of her mouth. That she was barely twenty only made it worse, implying she might not yet have reached her full flowering. A soft, oval face: pale of complexion but with a touch of vivid outdoor blush about the cheeks; framed by straight sandy hair as light as summer

rain. Eyes of deep blue-green, slightly slanted, and fringed with the most alluringly long lashes, gazed

thoughtfully, even judgementally out at the world. Sherrill's otherwise dainty nose had a distinct protuberance at its tip - a detail that on any other young woman might be deemed a flaw, yet somehow only enhanced her visage: likewise the pronounced cleft in her prominent, slightly irregular chin. And then there was her mouth - a glistening orchid of coral pink, its upper lip a perfect sinuous arch, its lower a voluptuous, coruscating curl like a breaking wave. In the space between them prominent, pure white incisors gleamed, and the whole seemed set in a questioning twist that could so easily slip into a dismissive sneer. All in all, 'twas a face that defied you not to be smitten, yet seemed unconcerned as to whether you were.

She greeted Everard with studied formality, trying to impress with her manners, and Kendall felt another envious stab, a wholly irrational sense of territorialism about her aged husband. But the girl's approach to Kendall herself was utterly bewildering: her eyes widened, and she grasped the woman's hands with a surge of unalloyed, girlish excitement.

"Och, I've been so dying to meet you!" she gushed. "When Father said you might be coming, I was just so excited..."

Kendall could not help shrinking back a little from this unexpected exuberance, but Sherrill seemed undeterred. Still clutching one hand she turned to her father.

"Pa, would you mind at all if I showed Mrs Prince around the place?"

"Not at all," the Duke coughed, slightly taken aback. "I'm sure Everard and I have plenty to catch up on, that's unlikely to interest you ladies."

And before Kendall could gather her wits, she was being hauled out into the castle's airy, echoing corridors. They hadn't gone very far before Sherrill spun abruptly around, confronting Kendall.

"So... is it true?"

To her great credit, Kendall was initially flummoxed by this brazen entreaty.

"I beg your pardon? Is what true?"

The girl all but convulsed with anticipation.

"You know - the rumour. About you and... him."

The cold hand that clutched at Kendall's heart, and the burning flush that filled her face were a contrast in sensations that , unfortunately, she was in no position to analyse. She found that she was trembling with unalloyed fury.

"You... dare to ask me about that?"

"Of course," the girl answered blithely. "It's all I've thought about since I learned you were coming - I'm desperate to know." That slightly disdainful expression was still fixed on her face; her eyes were penetrating. Kendall inhaled deeply, struggling to compose herself.

"Miss Munroe," she said at last. "You are a very young woman, and that is the only reason I can think of to overlook your appalling lack of manners. But let me say that I have resisted these vile rumours in the face of the most extreme provocation: I have maintained the utmost discretion in the face of interrogation from journalists, politicians, equerries; even Her Majesty herself. Do you seriously believe I would break my silence now, in the presence of some impudent young stranger?"

Sherrill shrugged, utterly unfazed.

"No harm in asking. Apologies if I offended you: Pa is always saying I speak too bluntly and ask

too many questions; not the done thing for a lady, it seems. Anyway, would you still like to be shown around?"

"I would appreciate it," Kendall bridled, forcing down her anger like it was overcooked mutton.

Sherrill set off at a smart clip, beckoning her to follow. After a few steps, she turned again, shooting Kendall her most impertinent look yet.

"I shall wheedle it out of you, you know - I'm good like that. Oh, and by the way," she added with a wink, "Your bosoms are as spectacular as advertised..."

*

Inevitably, there was a dinner. No doubt in deference to Kendall's still toxic reputation, the Duke had neglected to invite any other guests, and so she found herself positioned opposite his baleful brat of a daughter. With her hair elegantly set, and sporting a gorgeous evening dress of yellow silk and lace, she looked more insolently stunning than ever. Seething with hatred, Kendall steadfastly concentrated her attention on her plate while the girl made persistent attempts to catch her eye.

The men, meanwhile, droned on - mostly about Gladstone. It was obvious that Sherrill was bored rigid by their talk, an attitude with which Kendall might have sympathised were not her enmity already so well established. And, eventually (and wholly predictably in Kendall's eyes), the youngster could stand it no longer.

"Pa, dearest, could we possibly have a respite from politics, even if only for a half an hour?"

The Duke seemed momentarily nonplussed, perhaps even annoyed, but he quickly softened.

"You are quite right, my dear - I do apologise. There are ladies present, and we are monopolising

the conversation."

"Perhaps you could tell us something about the local area, Miss Munroe," said Everard eagerly. Kendall shot him a sour glance - it was obvious to her he was already infatuated with this young hussy.

"There is nothing much to tell, Sir," she replied, genially enough. "Very little happens up here in this remote corner."

"Oh, come now," he countered. "Your father tells me you are soon to have your very own railway - surely that constitutes a 'happening'?"

Oh Dear God, thought Kendall, he's actually flirting with her. She watched with barely-concealed contempt as the girl nodded, blushing slightly.

"And did I not read somewhere that you have had your very own sea monster?"

"Oh no, that wasn't us," chimed in the Duke. "That was on the west coast, last summer. Strange business: apparently a vicar and his family saw some sort of serpent; got themselves in all the papers, took rather a lot of stick, then they disappeared for a few months; and when they came back they denied any of it had ever happened. Most peculiar."

Sherrill gave a high-pitched, gratingly girlish giggle.

"Please, Papa, 'peculiar' doesn't begin to cover it."

"Oh?" Everard was evidently intrigued. Sherrill shot Kendall a sly glance, then leaned across the table conspiratorially.

"What my father is not prepared to tell you, is that certain salacious rumours circulated earlier this

year, concerning the family in question. There was talk of eloping daughters, a mysterious widow, illicit affairs..."

Kendall stood up, abruptly, her chair grinding as it slid behind her.

"You must excuse me," she said, falteringly, "But I am rather tired. I think I shall retire now..."

And summoning the last vestiges of her dignity, she strode from the room.

*

It felt like hours that Kendall waited for her husband, though Everard would have merely left a decent interval, so as not to offend their host. When he did appear in their suite, he found her sitting on the bed, fully clothed, dabbing her eyes.

"I say, Old Thing, whatever's the matter?"

"That girl," she sniffed. "That dreadful, foul-mouthed girl."

He chuckled. "Oh, she's a firebrand, all right. Like this whole region: raw and untamed."

"You can't possibly consider her a match for Mr Danson."

"Oh, I don't know - Danson's a young buck, and they seem to like these modern., feisty women. Someone to challenge them when they're away from the Commons."

He settled beside her, putting a gentle, fatherly arm around her shoulders.

"Come on, Darling - you've faced down Victoria herself over this stuff and nonsense. Why should a

mere hoyden get to you?"

"I don't know," Kendall shrugged. "There's just something about her... I told you it was too soon."

"Yes, you did," he nodded. There was a silence.

"Do you want her?" Kendall blurted suddenly.

"I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me - do you want her?"

"Darling, how can you even ask that?"

"Oh, perhaps I'm tired of being asked about affairs I haven't had: maybe it's time I started asking you about affairs you might be contemplating..."

The comforting arm was withdrawn. Everard rose.

"I cannot believe," he said, slowly, "That after all the support I have given you, all the faith I have invested; that you would turn around and repay me like this. You have wounded me, my wife - wounded me deeply."

And Kendall knew that her words had been overly harsh, and spoken out of turn. But there was something that prevented her from withdrawing them, no matter the damage done. Perhaps it was her pride: perhaps that was all that she had left...

*

She awoke to a land transformed. Overnight, the clinging grey pall of cloud that she had assumed was a permanent feature had somehow dissipated, and sunlight scoured the hills, illuminating the stark, scarred beauty of their slopes; the white twists of descending streams like brilliant ribbons threaded through stone. Below them the sea was a rippled sheet of glistening, azure glass - it beckoned to her,

made her ache with longing. Unable to remain in her bedroom she dressed carelessly while Everard slept on (or at least pretended to - evidently he was still sulking at her words, and she was in no mind yet to retract them), then slipped outside into air as sharp and pure as icicles. She walked down through the formal gardens, lawns and shrubs glistening with a dew so thick they seemed almost

frosted. Then, passing though a little gate she took a precipitous path that dropped down onto a lightly pebbled strip of beach. The tide was well up, depositing shimmering lines of foam upon the sand, each one advancing a little further than its predecessors. Furtively Kendall glanced up and down the beach, then back towards the castle - nobody around, no sign of life. With sudden, illicit decisiveness she kicked off her shoes, then balanced awkwardly to peel off her stockings, each in turn. Carrying her footwear (rolled stockings tucked securely inside) in one hand, and gathering up her hem in the other, she gingerly advanced towards the water. An icy surge flowed over her toes, making her gasp; the water swirled sensuously about her sole and heel, gently sucking as it retreated, carving little hollows in the wet, syrupy sand the rough shape of her tread. She began to walk, parallel to the wash, checking each advancing wave: she flirted with the onrushing tide, occasionally scurrying to avoid a sudden major influx. Inadvertently she dampened her petticoat, and was momentarily mortified; then, with a giggle, she decided it didn't matter all that much in the scheme of things. By the time she reversed her direction she was splashing in the water in a quite undignified manner, lost to the moment.

Dignity and mortification returned in an abrupt rush, when she spied a figure watching her from the top of the beach path. Forced to stop, she self-consciously rubbed clinging sand from her feet before replacing her stockings and shoes. As she crossed the dry sand, wet hems trailing, the girl regarded her with that all-too familiar, appraising stare.

"Good morning," she said, holding open the gate. "I was sent to find you - breakfast is ready."

Kendall acknowledged her curtly, climbing the path with as much dignity as she could muster.

"You looked like you were having fun," Sherrill commented. "Why didn't you go in for a swim?"

"Don't be absurd," Kendall snapped. "I did not bring a suitable costume..."

"And who needs a costume?" the girl replied, archly. "I never have. It's a private beach, and you can't be seen from the castle - just think, you could have unleashed those legendary breasts of yours. Still, if you insist on covering up, I'm sure we can find something suitable lying about the place."

"That won't be necessary, thank you," sniffed Kendall.

"As you wish. Anyway, I was wondering what you fancied doing after breakfast - I though maybe we could take a drive in the carriage, go into Golspie or Brora, maybe even Dornoch..."

Kendall stopped, turned, looked directly at her.

"What on earth makes you think I would wish to spend a day with you?"

The girl smiled wryly.

"Because otherwise, you might have to spend it listening to my father and your husband talking politics: and something tells me you'd rather die than do that..."

Kendall harrumphed, turning away and setting off through the gardens at a smart clip. This girl was impossible: what was worse, she was absolutely right...

*

 

The carriage rolled through the perfect morning, its taciturn driver evidently in no hurry on the coast road, keeping the calm silvery water always in view. Its presence, plus the steady rocking motion and the rhythmic clop of hooves, almost served to put Kendall at her ease. After breakfast she had, at least, managed to patch up the little contretemps with her husband. Dear Everard, he seemed so used to these little emotional storms of hers; so patient, loyal and loving: why couldnt she bring herself to repay him in kind? He had, he assured her quietly, no interest whatsoever in Miss Munroe, and of course she believed him There was but one drawback to this reassurance, however - it meant that she herself was now burdened with the buzzing irritation that was young Sherrill.

"So," she was saying, jerking Kendall from pleasant reveries, "Back to my original question: did you, or did you not?"

"Oh, God," Kendall groaned, "Not this again. You really are the most impertinent little wretch, aren't you?"

"Of course," Sherrill smiled, "It's part of my highland charm. I said I'd wear you down, and I will - so why don't you just tell me?"

"I'll tell you nothing," sighed Kendall, closing her eyes. "And there's an end on it."

"Och, I know what you said to the papers, and I also know what you said to the Queen - but I want to know the truth. I mean, come on, he's the Prince of Wales - could you really have resisted him? I don't think I could..."

Kendall fixed her with a glare.

"Perhaps you do not share my sense of rectitude."

Sherrill was unfazed. "Aye - perhaps I don't. But I think where that man is concerned, rectitude

rather goes out the window, wouldn't you say?"

Kendall swallowed. Everard, as usual, had been right - she'd faced down the mighty Victoria herself, seen off the most vicious rats Fleet Street had to offer, maintained her dignity in a baying courtroom: so why, why was this obnoxious child so getting under her skin? She turned her face to the window, seeking distraction in the calming presence of the sea. And as she did so, she chanced to see something.

"I do believe there is your sea serpent," she said, matter-of-factly.

Sherrill hesitated, momentarily nonplussed, anticipating a non-existent joke. She turned, looked out

- sure enough, there upon the still water, quite visible, showed a long string of sinuous humps.

"That is but a wave, surely," she said, but even as she spoke her conviction faltered. 'Twas like no wave she had ever seen: the humps were not ephemeral, but quite solid; hinting at a greater mass just below the surface. The pair of them looked on, enraptured, for a few moments, until a curve in the road took the object out of their sight. Instantly, Sherrill was slamming down the window, sticking her head out and shouting for the befuddled driver to stop. As he did so, she leapt from the carriage and hurried back to a spot giving a clear view of the water; Kendall following leisurely behind. There was nothing to be seen now, not a wake or any sort of disturbance; the sea calm and unruffled as a reflecting pool.

"It's gone," Sherrill ejaculated, almost stamping her foot in disappointment. "But it was there, wasn't it? You saw it, didn't you?"

"I saw it," said Kendall, calmly. "Now, may we continue on our way?"

Sherrill lingered a few seconds more, before sighing and following her back to the carriage. Before climbing in she interrogated the driver, who naturally had seen nothing, all his attention focussed on the

road ahead. With all the reluctance of the young and curious she eventually embarked, Kendall watching her discomposure with ill-disguised amusement.

At length they reached an elegant, substantial resort, which Kendall was forced to assume was Dornoch. It even had a castle, albeit far less imposing a structure than Dunrobin. A hostelry was swiftly located, for purposes of watering both horse and driver, while the ladies distractedly perused a

cavalcade of shops before settling to lunch at an out-of-the-way tearoom so quiet it might have been provided exclusively for their benefit. Sherrill, Kendall was wryly amused to note, was still buzzing from earlier, fidgeting on her seat like a schoolgirl avoiding sums.

"We actually saw a sea serpent," she gushed. "Aren't you excited?"

"We certainly saw something," Kendall shrugged, slightly regretting that she had so named the apparition. "I'm not sure I would go so far as to assert it was a monster..."

"D'you think we should tell everyone?"

"Well, that rather depends - given what happened to those people on the west coast, whose story you so colourfully evoked last night, would you say that was a good idea?"

Sherrill thought, the bright zealous light slowly fading from her eyes. "No - I suppose not. Perhaps it should be our secret, at least for now?"

"Whatever you like," Kendall sighed. "And before you ask - no, I am not sharing any other secrets with you..."

Sherrill smiled ruefully. "I know. But at least we have a bond now, don't we - an intimacy?"

Kendall sipped carefully at her cup of rather suspicious tea. "We have a highly anomalous

connection - I shouldn't put too much stock in it."

"Would you tell me about this Danson - the one they want me to marry?"

"I only met him a few times, at receptions and the like - an earnest young man, as I recall; dependable, principled, solid..."

"But is he handsome?" Sherrill was leaning forward, slipping again into annoyingly girlish intensity. "Is he passionate?"

"More bookish than handsome, I would say," Kendall replied, with studied malevolence. "As for passion - well, that's not exactly the Whig way, now is it? Perhaps that's why they are dying out, in

parliamentary terms."

"Maybe they're dying out because of lack of offspring," Sherrill mused. "I hope they're not depending on me to fix that." She bit forcefully into a slice of Dundee cake, oblivious as Kendall bridled.

"I do not need reminding," she hissed, "That the Lord has not yet seen fit to bless us with children."

Sherrill stared at her, slowly swallowing her cake.

"But surely it's not the Lord's job," she said carefully. "I have long been under the impression that it was the husband's..."

And so help her, for all her pent-up resentment, Kendall was amused by that.

"You smiled!" Sherrill exclaimed, mock-accusingly. "Don't try to deny it - I actually made you smile. You see, I always win in the end..."

"Oh, shut up and finish your cake," snapped Kendall, stifling a giggle of surrender.

*

By the time they relocated their driver - none the worse for wear - they had actually progressed to walking arm-in-arm. It was almost like seduction: Kendall could scarce believe that one so relentlessly

obnoxious could wear her down. Except, had it not happened before? She pushed the thought away - there lay memories that were to remain interred forever...

Back in the carriage, matters between the women shifted again, strangely. Wedged into the seat side-by-side, there was peculiar sense of physical, crushing intimacy, as if they had somehow become enlarged, or conversely the vehicle's cabin had contracted about them. Kendall was acutely aware of Sherrill's hip pressing alongside her own; the suddenly awkward contact of their elbows and shoulders. And though the girl said very little, she projected a sense of nervousness, of hesitancy - for her, a deeply unnatural state.

"I wonder," she began at length, "If I might ask you something - don't worry, it's not about him."

"Ask away," Kendall replied, sounding more blithe than she really felt.

"You'll think it most peculiar..."

There was such a curious timbre to the girl's voice that Kendall turned to look directly at her. Astonishingly, a vivid blush had crept into that pale, ethereal face. The atmosphere within the carriage had become quite unpleasantly close and humid. Kendall essayed an uncertain smile.

"I said, ask away."

Sherrill bit her lip, a strikingly sensuous gesture.

"I wondered if you might let me see your breasts..."

Kendall took a moment to let the words sink in, like icy raindrops running down her neck.

"You mean, here? Now?"

Sherrill nodded demurely, her wide eyes betraying the earnestness of her request, a glimmer of outlandish hunger that went far beyond mere curiosity or provocation. To Kendall, what was most bizarre was not the request itself, but the fact that she was actually entertaining it.

"The driver..." she offered, as token protest.

"Och, he didn't see the monster, so how's he going to see in here, with eyes fixed upon the road ahead? We've plenty of time before we reach Dunrobin."

Kendall felt surreal, detached, and thus the hands that reached up to her throat, the fingers that began to unbutton her bodice, were not hers - they belonged to some unseen third party. She was, however, vividly aware of Sherrill's eyes upon her, intently studying every move, their hungry expectation a searing spotlight glow; was also vividly aware of the carriage's constant, slightly sensual rocking.

Delving through layers of confining clothing Kendall at last reached the delicate fastenings of her chemise. As she steadily released them the sense of illicitness was so overpowering that she actually looked down at herself sliding free of restraint, almost as if she might see something unexpected. As it was she allowed herself a small grunt of satisfaction: her breasts were immense, had been since her adolescence, but they were also beautiful - still buoyant, firm and shapely for all their voluptuous distension; oscillating gently with the sway of their passage. Then she glanced up, saw Sherrill's adoring, enraptured expression, and she knew a disorienting thrill of blended excitement and anxiety.

"They're magnificent," the girl breathed, her eyes narrowing slightly as if studying an objet d'art, or

perhaps a feat of engineering. Again she hesitated, trying to frame a question that Kendall guessed well before she uttered it.

"May I... touch them?"

Kendall nodded, briskly, not trusting herself to speak - not sure if she was presently capable. She

closed her eyes as Sherrill reached across, then felt the feathery brush of nervous, curious fingertips upon her secret flesh: she successfully suppressed a shiver, but could not prevent a small gasp of surprise and appreciation escaping her lips. The girl was so gentle, so circumspect, handling her like she was flexible porcelain: fingertips stroking and kneading, testing her pliancy; gliding across the broad tawny eminences of her nipples, making them so hypersensitive that Kendall had to fight not to squirm, not to make a scene. After a few moments of this, she dared to steal another glance at Sherrill, realising as she did so that she was sweating profusely from her brow - the girl's eyes had gone strangely dreamy, unfocussed; her face and throat were suffused by a ferocious, almost alarming blush; her breathing was erratic, harried; her mouth twisted in a bizarre expression that seemed almost to denote incipient pain.

"Oh, Mrs Prince," she said, seeming on the verge of a swoon, "Oh my word, I..."

And she seemed to shimmer slightly, become unreal, before a long, shuddering exhalation rattled from between her lips. She turned away immediately, abruptly.

"Oh dear God, whatever must you think of me?" she blurted. "Oh, the shame of it - please forgive me, Mrs Prince..."

Kendall was unsure what she was expected to forgive - she was more intrigued than offended by this occurrence. She might have inquired, but Sherrill was obviously distressed, her natural volubility yet again eroded, disturbingly pushed aside. And it was at that moment, like stirring from some trance, Kendall realised that she was still exposed. Struggling to compress herself back into the restraint of

her garments she fumbled everything into order, achieving respectability just as they arrived - in a tense, unnatural silence - back at Dunrobin Castle.

Kendall's face burned like a lantern as she disembarked, but if their driver had seen, or even suspected, anything at all, he gave no indication. Once inside, they found the castle bereft of authority, the staff intimating that the Duke and his honourable guest had, in their absence, set off on a mission of some secrecy; their return was not anticipated until the morrow. Sherrill seemed inordinately discomfited by this, and retired almost immediately to her room, leaving Kendall to roam the building's endless corridors without purpose until at last she settled in the library, distracting herself in epic, fanciful tales set amid the splendour of the lochs and glens.

Lost to time, she failed to notice the ripening of the warm afternoon: the rich, golden glow of encroaching evening. Lulled by lyrical prose she dozed, until jolted forcefully back to wakefulness by a sudden, ebullient presence in the room.

"There you are," Sherrill bubbled, "I've been looking all over." She seemed abruptly restored to her usual self, something Kendall found both a relief and quite annoying. "Come on - it's far too nice a day to waste indoors. We're going swimming..."

"We're what?" responded Kendall, stupefied.

*

To the beach, arm-in-arm, with little doubt whose legs provided propulsion: yet again, Kendall was allowing Sherrill to dictate her actions, without clear comprehension why. She felt unaccountably nervous, intimidated by the girl's restored gusto; ill at ease with a simple seaside stroll. But when they finally reached the shore, when Kendall caught sight of the golden afternoon sunlight glittering upon the gentle waves; when she heard the soft whisper of the oncoming eventide, scrabbling the swathe of flat sand with white foaming fingers - suddenly, it all made perfect sense.

"It's beautiful," she breathed.

"Not as beautiful as you," Sherrill murmured, and Kendall was so taken aback she had to look in the girl's face to ensure she was not being teased. She had no idea how to respond.

"Mrs Prince," Sherrill began, "About this afternoon - I just want to..."

It seemed as though she were about to slip back into her former seriousness - Kendall, curiously, found this prospect unbearable. She raised a hand, imperiously.

"Please," she countered, "There is no need to say anything. Let us forget all about this afternoon - in fact, let us forget all about today. Perhaps, in truth, it was a dream, from which we are only now awakening: perhaps a splash of seawater is what we need to clear our heads..."

"Aye, perhaps," said Sherrill softly. She stepped away, across the softly crunching sand, towards the frothing fringe of the rolling surf. At a safe distance she stopped, set down her little basket of blankets and towels, then with insouciant elegance began to disrobe. After a few nervous glances all about, Kendall found herself actually watching this unselfconscious burlesque. She felt no embarrassment, no disgust - to her great surprise, she was not even particularly shocked - only the cool detachment one might experience as spectator to a preening wader, or any other act of nature. For it was natural: 'twas as though nudity were Sherrill's native state; clothing a mere appurtenance. She faced the sea, so all Kendall saw revealed were her slender shoulders, her narrow back, her boyishly taut buttocks and lithe legs; all sculpted from pale delicate skin that brought to mind the fragility of blossom. The sunlight glowed in her hair, a sudden flare of copper as she turned, glancing over her shoulder with an intense look that seemed to root the older woman into the sand. She smiled, then with a dainty dancer's step she strode confidently out into the water: a salmon leap, a crescent flash of white backside and she was swimming, with all the sinuous elan of a porpoise, or a seal.

Sherrill's progress was easy, astonishingly rapid: arms and legs carving the water with the graceful,

rhythmic power of oars; aiming for a small shoal of rocks, scoured smooth by endless tides, showing like pale grey buoys above the waves. Kendall felt herself drawn forward, towards the whispering foam. For the second time this day, her hands moved independent of her conscious thoughts; anticipating her longing, overriding her sense of propriety. As she perfunctorily unpinned her hair, began the complex layered action of undressing, she did not dwell on who might or might not be watching - she noted only that her bared flesh did not chill with exposure, as she might have assumed. By the time she was actually naked - feeling a little heavy, a tad ridiculous, all bosom and hips - Sherrill had pulled herself up onto the largest of the rocks, sat now like some mythical mermaid, dripping and glistening - her brief glance back towards the beach at once an invitation and a challenge.

Kendall took a moment to savour the rare sensation of warm air upon her bare skin, then with slight trepidation stepped into the wash. Surprisingly tepid water oozed over her feet, splashed her calves, tugged at her ankles with its gently insistent, seductive pull. She waded up to her knees, and now the water resisted her, weighting her progress, threatening to unbalance her as it pushed and thrust in opposition: up to her waist it all but brought her to a stand, until abruptly the sand disappeared beneath

her feet and she was floating free. The sudden upending buoyancy was so novel it had her whooping and giggling like a schoolgirl: all encumbrances removed, become insubstantial as a feather on the wind.

Kendall was not a skilled or elegant swimmer - she paddled doggedly against the waves, struggling and spouting like a tired whale, until at long last she reached Sherrill's tiny island. The girl reached out a hand, helped her onto pale, polished rock quickly stained slate with the salty rain that fell from her body.

"I knew that you would come to me," Sherrill smiled, but there was something in her look that chilled Kendall more thoroughly than leaving the water. As she settled beside Sherrill upon the hard stone she felt exposed again, ridiculously voluptuous - wishing she'd never gone along with this.

"What is it you want?" she snapped, more churlishly than was called for.

"I want us to be real friends," replied Sherrill simply. "I want us to share... intimacies."

"Oh, God, you're not going to ask about him again, are you?"

Sherrill smiled ruefully, shaking her head.

"No, I'm not. I want to tell you something. I want to explain what happened in the carriage."

"I told you to forget about that."

"But I cant forget about it," Sherrill countered, with unexpected vehemence. "I've not been able to think about anything else since we got back..."

Kendall felt another chill, and it had nothing to do with the water, or the slow dipping sun.

"When you bared your breasts," Sherrill continued, "when I saw your body for the first time, I - I felt so peculiar: giddy, breathless, a little dizzy; colour filling my cheeks and my heart suddenly racing. And then, when - when you let me touch you, I... I had this epiphany: a thing of spirit as well as body; something like a warm wave that ran through me, that lifted me up and then set me down again, even though I did not move. It disturbed me - I had never known anything like it: that is why I ran to my room. I could feel this sort of humming, under my skirts: I took off my drawers, and... they were damp, moistened by something that smelled fresh yet pungent, like a garden after the rain. And then I realised what had happened, because of your flesh, because of you."

She took a deep, halting breath, that was almost a sob; her ripe breasts heaving a little.

You made me spend, she said in a rush. I barely touched you, and I spent

Kendall could not help herself slipping into a state of disconnection, of unreality. She tried not to

meet the searing aqua of Sherrills gaze: not to see the sensual quiver of her lower lip; the steady rise of her pale, perfect bosom; the alluring dust of freckles upon her slender arms, the minor constellation of moles splashed along her shapely legs - all these things she tried to ignore, hopelessly. Her turning away was like Atlas, carrying the world.

Why are you telling me this? she whispered.

Because I want to do it again, answered Sherrill, and though her voice was soft, it had steel. Kendalls head snapped back around - their eyes met.

Do you have any idea what it is you are proposing? Kendalls intended tone of outrage sounded hollow, even to her own ears. She was fixated by Sherrills eyes, the set of her mouth, the open longing. The girl leaned towards her, oh-so slowly, and their lips met. And as they kissed softly, almost chastely, so their breasts touched: a fleeting meld of heavy, yielding flesh; yet sufficient to shock Kendall into breathless, numb rigidity.

It is only the same thing as he proposed, whispered Sherrill. And then, abruptly, she was gone, slipping from the rock with barely a splash, surging away with a fishs conviction; leaving Kendall alone, stranded, a touch bereft. The sun had slipped behind the hills, purple shadows smothering the beach; the splash around her ankles abruptly, genuinely chilled, making her shiver. She watched as Sherrill strode onto the sand, dried off, dressed with unaffected alacrity. Easing herself into the water, she let the waves carry her back - twas so much easier to go with the tide than fight it.

She emerged shivering, a damp, disoriented Aphrodite. Everything seemed strange in this abrupt, unexpected twilight - a sharp breeze sifting Sherrills hair as she approached, tentatively, towel in her outstretched hands. Kendall stood, head bowed, supplicant. The simple wonder of the towel, at once soft and abrasive about her shoulders; the warmth of Sherrills arms around her. The girl rubbed her gently, diffidently, like a timorous maid, and she was unresisting. Then somehow, her own arms had curled about Sherrills torso, the towel had fallen to the sand, their lips had brushed: they were kissing.

The tang of salt, the faint sting of wind-blown grit, the feather caress of fluttering hair: the warmth of mouths, of bodies pressed together; the slow, shuddering sunset of restraint, the promised dawn of lambent passion. Kendall pulled away - one last question.

The servants.?

Gone away, Sherrill smiled. I sent them all home, before we left.

Kendall almost gasped, but instead a guffaw of resignation escaped her.

You knew, didnt you?

I hoped, Sherrill countered. Hope is better.

*