Featured Story: Walk the Garden by Louise Taylor
This lovely story (the last of the Tell Me You Love Me runners-up that I'll be able to share) is such a beautiful mix between lighthearted banter and serious heart-to-hearts! I love the humor and the intensity and how Louise managed to develop two intriguing characters and their relationship through just a few lines of dialogue! I think y'all will enjoy this one just as much as I did!
Without further ado...Walk the Garden by Louise Taylor!
The room was clamorous, endless chatter filled her ears, the people, the unhelpful music that never stopped playing. It pained her to listen to the musicians play song after song after song… And nothing made the night worse than a poorly fit ball gown. She closed her eyes, trying to quell the oncoming headache.
“Well hey, Diana. You look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
She blinked, glaring at the familiar voice. “Please, not now, Wesley.”
“It was just an observation.” He shrugged, coming to stand beside her in the corner. A corner of his mouth quirked up, making it hard to brush him aside.
Supposedly they were celebrating the soldier’s victory at the battle of Mount Hurst, but nothing said defeat like thousands of dead troops, and a mountain soaked in blood. “Well I don’t want to listen to anybody’s observations at the moment.” She glanced at him again out of the corner of her eye.
He glanced back, smiling now.
She looked back at the rich and official, trying to slow her heartbeat. At least he looked comfortable, she fumed. At the moment she felt like she couldn’t breath, the bodice of her dress was unbelievably snug, she didn’t know how Mom had managed to zip it up. And the skirt… It was so heavy. There’d been several moments she was afraid of falling.
“What about a dance?” he turned to face her, hands in his pockets, brown eyes twinkling.
“No, Wesley. Do I look like I want to dance?”
“You look like you want to go home.”
She folded her arms, tilting her head to look him full in the face.
“Which is why I asked. You might enjoy yourself more if you danced.” He held out a hand.
“I can tell you right now the only thing I want to do is go home and change and take a nice, long, quiet walk outside.” She wanted to get out of here, away from the false festivities, from the people who pretended all was well. This was nothing but a show put on for the officials who financed their battles.
Wesley wasn’t one of those people, he was a medical lieutenant, a front-line doctor. But through some misfortune, even he wasn’t paid attention to. She turned away from him, scanning the people.
“Well, what’s stopping you?”
“The stupid crowd, that’s what.”
“What, you can’t make it to the entrance?”
“No.” She practically growled, looking over the masses, she spotted her sister, their identical black curls, Adelaide’s long, hers short making them easy to see among the fair-haired of the court. She picked out her brother, who was talking to the king’s top official, of course, and (as expected) standing taller and more confident than any of them. Her parents stood across the room… and there, there was Wesley’s mother, looking nothing like her blonde-haired, broad-shouldered son.
He leaned toward her. “Come with me.” He whispered, linking her arm in his and starting toward the south side of the room.
She tripped over her own feet following him. “Slow down! I can’t walk in these shoes.” Or the skirt, for that matter.
He glanced back, at her feet, which he couldn’t see due to the billowy skirt, but slowed down.
She followed easily then, weaving through the people. Despite Wesley’s slow gait she bumped into a girl with roses in her hair and a bright pink dress.
“Watch it!” the girl glared, holding her crystal glass aloft.
“Sorry.” Diana scoffed, hiking her skirts above her ankles. “Sheesh.” She whispered to Wesley as they started walking again.
“It’s not you.” He whispered, glancing back at the girl over his shoulder. “In fact,” he leaned his head closer and lowered his voice. “In fact, I think she’s jealous. You look like a grand duchess and she but a lowly flower-girl.”
“A-” Diana stopped, frowning up at the lieutenant. “A grand duchess? What the heck, Wesley?”
He shrugged, looking at her head to toe. “Royal, prestigious, wisdom of the ages.” He suggested, grinning at her.
“Oh my word.” She readjusted the skirt material in her hand and scanned her surroundings. “Which way are we going?”
“Those doors.” He nodded toward two french doors, one of two sets… on either side of double doors tall enough to allow a truck through, and likely worth enough money to send any middle-aged man or woman straight into retirement.
Wesley drew her to a stop in front of one of the french doors, the set on the right, leading to the terrace.
Diana tried the handle. “Brilliant. They’re locked.” She set her jaw, glancing over her shoulder and mentally planning the best route to the stairs… And freedom. She turned back to the lieutenant to tell him her plan, but he was fishing through a pocket.
He pulled out a pin.
“What are you doing?!” She hissed. “Those are locked for a reason.”
“Do you want to get out or not?” his grin only made it worse, out of place with his military dress suit, he nodded over his shoulder. “Turn the other way, make it seem like you’re talking to me.”
She looked over her shoulder, sighing. The girl with the roses in her hair was dancing now, she caught sight of Diana and stuck her tongue out.
Diana gasped. The absolute idiocy… She clenched her jaw. “Fine. How are the men in the ICU?” Mount Hurst had been a battle between nine-hundred of their men, and two thousand of the enemy… Whoever had given the green light was a man Diana wanted meet. How he’d authorized such a blunderous move was past any logical thought. He’d known they were out-manned, out-gunned, and on the lower part of the mountain, forced to battle uphill. Eight-hundred fifty had perished before they’d called the last forty-three to retreat. Seven had gone missing… no trace to be found.
When Wesley said nothing she turned back to him.
He gently inched the door open, the night breeze washing gently over them both. “We lost five.” His dark eyes no longer twinkled, his service cap pulled low over his white-blonde hair, shadowing his strong features as he looked into the night.
Her throat threatened to close in. “Which ones?”
“Does it matter?” He pushed the door open further, holding his arm out. “Ladies first.”
She folded her arms. “It does too matter. Five families lost their sons, brothers, and husbands due to our officials stupid-”
He stepped back and slid his arm around her waist. “Wait until there isn’t anyone to hear you.” He guided her out the door.
“Men died.” She threw his arm away, pivoting on her heel once she was out in the night. “I don’t care about some nobleman whose feelings I’m going to hurt. This is not acceptable.”
He pulled the door shut, looking at her like they hadn’t just been in a room full of people. “I know you care, I do too.”
“Caring isn’t at stake here, lives are, Wesley! And those daft-minded military officials can’t-”
“Hear me out.” He whispered, the moonlight bouncing off several decorations pinned to the breast of his coat.
She rubbed her tongue along the roof of her mouth, afraid breaking eye contact would equal defeat. Slowly she regained her senses, felt the chilling breeze, heard the frogs and crickets singing in chorus, remembered that she and Wesley were on the same side, that he had intellect abounding when it came to this subject… More than she did.
She nodded numbly.
“Everybody in there has stakes in this war. The things we say greatly affect how they view the battle. Mount Hurst was a mistake, our leaders were divided, and the officials with the strongest driving force won. That doesn’t make our mens deaths right, or worth it.”
She folded her arms against her middle and lowered her head, resting her chin against her chest. Her skirt blew gently around her, the deep red reflective of the countless gallons of blood shed.
“We can’t give the impression this war isn’t worth their time or they’ll pull resources, and, Diana-” He stepped forward, lifting her chin and meeting her eyes. “If they pull resources, those men’s lives will have been wasted, it will all have been in vain.”
She took in a slow breath.
He dropped his hand. “We can’t let that happen.” His voice was mournful, acknowledging the sacrifice, acknowledging the suffering. He, a lieutenant with a thousand accomplishments to his name, standing there dressed in his uniform, medals and all, was willing to sacrifice his side’s dignity and pride… In order to finish the fight they didn’t start. Mourn the men, but don’t speak negatively of the leaders. Or they might lose.
And the sooner it was over, the less men would die.
The silence carried on for a moment too long.
Diana couldn’t meet his eyes. Everything in her wanted to fight him, to claim there was another, better way. But she knew he had a point. He was realistic. He knew the wars leaders couldn’t be replaced, not now, they could bring in new ones, but no official who’d sided for attacking Mount Hurst would be condemned. They simply didn’t have the guts.
“I got you outside.” Wesley gave a small bow, gesturing to the quiet terrace, inviting her to forget the worries of the world for a small moment in time.
Crickets and birds chirped and sang, frogs croaked in nearby ponds and streams. Just the smell of the night air relieved her of the social tension she’d been in. “Just because you got me outside doesn’t mean I’ll forgive you for calling me an old duchess.” She lifted her chin and conceded the argument.
“A wise duchess.” He gave her a considering smile, tilting his head back and looking down his nose at her.
If he was so intent on lightening the moment, so be it. “You’re pathetic.” She gave him a wry look. “You’re short and you know it.”
He hid a smile, she could tell by the brief dimple that appeared in his right cheek. “I’m taller than you, that must count for something.”
She set her hands on her hips, leaning forward. “I’m a woman, I’m graceful at this height.” She leaned back. “You’re just stocky.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m almost six feet tall, Diana.”
“Yes. Practically a dwarf compared to my brother.” She looked him up and down, nodding with satisfaction at the fact he was much shorter than her six-foot-four brother.
“What does that make you?” he waited a moment as she opened her mouth in a retort. “A graceful mushroom?” he smiled. “Woman?”
She set her jaw. “You changed the subject.”
“Successfully.” He pointed a finger at her. “Don’t diminish my success.”
“All right, fine. You win.” She dropped her arms.
“Good, so we do what I want now?”
Her eyes widened instinctively. “No, I didn’t-”
“How about a walk?” he held out his arm, giving her a genuinely gracious smile.
She watched him for a moment. “Alright.” She lifted her skirt just off the ground, pulled off her she's, and took his arm.
He glanced at the shoes. “Those look painful.”
“They were.” She grimaced, lifting her right foot up and rubbing it in an attempt to soothe the throbbing pain.
“You’re even shorter now.” Wesley smirked.
“Hush up.” She looked down as they began walking, hoping the night could hide her blush.
“Oh come on, be nice, you know you like me.”
“I find that offensive.”
“You’re the one who wanted to spend time in company.”
“I saw you were suffering, I wanted to be a gentleman.”
“And see where that got you? Honestly, Wesley, with that brain of yours you should have been able to see this coming.”
“Seen what coming? Wait, no, go back to the first part of that sentence… You think I’m smart?” his eyes were full of mirth as she glanced at him.
“On some level, yes.” she nodded thoughtfully, focusing on the marble path in front of them. “But not especially intelligent.”
“Is that good or bad, considering I’m a doctor?”
“It’s alright. Like I said, you’re intelligent on a level…” she pursed her lips. “Possibly a medical level-”
“-you’ve got an impressionable amount of intelligence.”
“Yes. Not terribly impressive, but enough to make an impression.”
“You do know what impressionable means, don’t you?” his lips curved up in a smile.
She paused, thinking, then shook her head vigorously, displacing several black curls. “No wait, that’s not what I meant.”
“You make an impression without impressing.”
“I sound dull.”
She squinted at a lattice covered in closed morning glories. “Vapid.”
“Hey!” he tugged gently at her arm.
“No, like you could use that word instead. I didn’t mean you were vapid.” She shoved his arm gently with hers.
“Am I vapid?”
She tilted her head in thought. “I don’t think so, no.”
“But you just said I’m not impressive.” He raised his eyebrows in conjecture.
“I have a ridiculously high standard. People think Drake is impressive… really though-'' she looked at him somberly, once again picturing her brother. “He’s just a dork.”
“So you consider neither of us impressive.” He reiterated.
“You’re clearly more impressive, you’re a heart-surgeon.”
“Um… No. Not even close, Diana.” He shook his head at her.
“Well anyway.” She waved her hand, trying to focus her mind off the fact that she was thoroughly enjoying his sense of humor and conversational skills. “He’s not a doctor, heart-surgeon, medical lieutenant, whatever you want to call it.”
He rolled his eyes.
“But on the other hand, I have met other men who are possibly higher on the achievement scale.”
“I can live with that.” Wesley nodded, smiling. “At least I’m on the achievement scale.”
“Exactly.” Diana nodded.
“At least you’re realistic.”
She thought about this for a moment, realizing he was the only one who’d ever called her realistic, or at least the only once in recent history that she could remember.
They continued slowly along the marble path, the lack of lights revealing the stars. She was grateful it was slow going, her aching soles protested each step. But it was well worth it.
“So is that what everyone always gets defensive about?” curiosity filled his dark brown eyes.
“Your high standards?”
“I suppose.” She mused.
“Maybe you expect excellence, and whenever anything comes short you’re disappointed.”
“Maybe… Or maybe I’m just stingy.” She sighed deeply, remembering the “friend” she’d encountered through-out her family’s stay at the palace. “Negative Nancy” she’d dubbed the girl. Negative Nancy didn’t take to her name, and accused Diana of being a stingy brat. So far they hadn’t spoken again… To Diana’s relief. “Either way, I’m clearly not a favorite among anyone in particular, so I guess I should try to be less stingy.” She joked.
“Or you could just expect less.” He frowned at a distant copse of trees. “Although not so you can be liked by anybody.”
“I don’t want to share you.” He said seriously.
She gave an involuntary laugh. “Oh my word, Wesley, you don’t have me in the first place.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Go ahead then, differ.” She watched him carefully.
“One of the biggest parties being thrown inside the palace, and I convinced you to come with me, out here, to walk. So clearly you like me more than anybody at the party.” His smug smile told her everything she needed to know.
“That’s not true, I just considered it less painful to be here with you then inside by myself.”
“Exactly! You like me more.”
“That’s not what I said, and it was my idea to leave and come walking.”
“I would have asked you eventually.” He countered.
“Make all the excuses you want, I know more than you think.” His reserved tone made her curious.
She opened her mouth, trying to come up with another witty line, but nothing came out. “I already said you were smart.” She tried.
“I know I’m smart.”
“Well don’t be arrogant.” She shivered suddenly as they passed all the barriers between them and the open sky. No more trees or bushes, or lattices overflowing with morning glories.
“I wasn’t.” He said superiorly. “I was conveying a fact.”
“Ha ha.” She looked dryly at him, then pressed her free arm into her side as another shiver racked her body. She hadn’t known it was so cold out. Her dress should have been enough, what with its hot skirt, long sleeves, and… Oh. Of course. She remembered the small open space at her back as the wind brushed gently over her skin. The fabric came to a point just below her shoulder blades… The dresses only defect. Well, other than it being a ball gown.
“Are you cold?”
“No.” She swallowed, shaking her head.
“You look like you’re freezing.”
“I’m fine.” She took a deep breath, trying to look normal, it only made her shiver more.
He removed his service cap, and she noticed for the first time the pin on one side of the peak. “Would you like my hat?”
She stared at it for a moment, then smiled. “Thank you.” She took it and pulled it over her black curls. “I’m so much warmer now. It’s like we’re in the desert, or a suna-”
“A beach, maybe the tropics.”
He shook his head.
“Down south, sitting under the sun…”
“Alright alright.” He unbuttoned his coat.
“No, you don’t have to-”
He slipped it over her shoulders. “There. More like the tropics now?”
It took a moment, but slowly she warmed again, the thick material heavy around her shoulders. “Yes. Thank you.”
His eyes twinkled at her, and he nodded.
She kept it close around her shoulders, sliding her arms into it for maximum effect. It was dark navy, like the rest of his suit, and he wore a tie that had just peeked out the top of his coat, pinned to his shirt down closer to the middle, to keep it from moving… She supposed.
“Where’d you get all these decorations?” she asked, peering down. Several pins and color strips rested just under the left shoulder, with a patch on the right proclaiming his medical lieutenancy.
“Oh, I collect them now and again.” He stuck his hands in his pockets as they continued walking.
He smiled, then looked back at the coat like he hadn’t remembered they were all there. “I got a couple right after I graduated medical school. I was already a part of the military, but after I graduated I fought in one of the civil battles.”
“They gave you a bravery medal?”
“No.” He shook his head slowly, his eyes clouding with memory. “It was an honorary medal. In honor of the lives I saved.” He glanced back at the coat. “Now I carry their memory’s with me.”
It suddenly felt weightier than before. This man had saved countless lives in risk of his own… And each one he saved saw the sun another day. “Did you graduate top of your class?” she raised her brows.
“No, actually.” He smiled. “I didn’t. I was seventh.”
“Oh.” Her brows drew together, and she found she had a difficult time picturing it. “Out of how many?”
“I’m kidding. There were six of us. I was the least intelligent of our group.”
“You-” she stopped, mouth open as she struggled for words.
“You think I’m too smart to have gotten seventh?” his eyes twinkled obnoxiously.
“Sixth.” She corrected, then pressed her lips together, resolved not to say another word.
“I was the youngest though, by five years.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I guess it makes sense.”
“Slacker.” She playfully shoved his arm.
“Hey, I made up for it in the long run.” He shoved her back.
“No joke, you never take a break now.” Her eyes caught on the floor to ceiling windows to their left, dark and unused. She glimpsed only a sliver of her face, dainty nose, pronounced cheekbones, curly cropped hair covered with the service cap. On impulse she turned to Wesley, stopping their progress down the path. She folded her fingers over the edge of the coat, which was by far too large for her. “How do I look?”
“Like a regular medical lieutenant.” He smiled.
“Oh perfect.” She turned, once again surveying her image.
“Actually,” he spun her back to face him. “You look very much like Diana.”
“In a military outfit? Oh, that’s nice.”
“No.” He smiled again. “The colors.” He brushed a stray piece of hair back under the hat, following it with his eyes. “They compliment your skin tone.”
“I had no idea my skin tone was so complimentable.”
“Why not? Haven’t you ever looked at yourself in a mirror before?”
“Well yeah, but what I see isn’t nearly as compliment-worthy as you make me sound.”
“Oy.” He studied her for a moment.
“Don’t give me that look.” She pulled away from him. The curl fell back against her cheek. “I’ve got enough things to worry about… Like how I’m a mushroom.” She lifted her chin.
He smiled again. “Well, I guess you’re a pretty mushroom.”
“Oh gee, that makes me feel so much better.”
“I bet you anything people prefer pretty mushrooms over stocky dwarves.” He offered her his arm again.
“Stocky dwarves are useful.” She took it. “Pretty mushrooms aren’t.”
“What’s one thing a stocky dwarf can do?”
“Attack naughty children?”
“What? That’s useful.”
“I’m not going to attack anybody’s naughty children.”
“Not even your naughty children?”
“I don’t have naughty children.”
“Well duh, I meant when you do.”
“No, I will not attack my future children when they’re being naughty.”
“Will you be a good father?”
“I would hope so.”
“Well good father’s don’t attack their children so I suppose that’s a start.”
“I suppose.” He mused.
“Good father’s play with their children.” She said decisively, wanting to see into what he saw of the future. “I’ve never seen you play, is it possible?”
“Yes.” He looked sideways at her. “No, I’m not going to prove it.”
“What about resources? Good father’s need resources…”
“I don’t know, income?”
“I make enough money… more than the average soldier. And most of it is never spent, Mom insists on using her income, since she already has retirement.”
“Oh. Interesting. So you’ve saved most of it then?”
“I’ve saved some of it, yes.” He eluded.
She gazed up at him, trying to read his features.
“I gave the rest away.” He said quietly, taking his turn to study the path.
She followed his eyes, wondering if there was another man on earth like him. It seemed so impossible, she’d met so many people, and no man was like Wesley. The silence would carry on until she broke it, she realized. So she nodded slowly. “You need books to read to the children.”
He sucked in a deep breath. “I suppose medical books won’t do.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Actual children’s books.”
“I’ll have you write one for me.” He suggested, looking down at her.
“I don’t write children’s books. Or any books, really.”
“But if I asked you to?” he raised his eyebrows.
“No, you’d have to convince me.” She pursed her lips, tilting her head back to take in the sky.
“How do I convince you?”
She looked slowly back at him. “I’m not so sure. No one really tries to.”
“Well I’m not just anyone, am I?”
“No, I guess not.” She licked her lips, playing with a button on his coat. She dropped her hand as her words sank in.
He stopped walking, turning to stand toe to toe with her. “So if I’m not anyone, who am I?”
She folded her arms, pausing a moment before answering. “You’re Wesley.”
“And when you think of me, what does it mean to you?”
“I don’t know, I usually think of a certain medical doctor with blonde hair and brown eyes.”
“But what does that image mean to you?”
It means the world. The thought tingled at the back of her mind. He was Wesley, brown-eyed, blonde-haired, selfless and dedicated. She loved him. Loved the man he was, the work he did, the sacrifices he made. “I didn’t realize it would be this unromantic.” She said bluntly.
“That was definitely not romantic.” She said pointedly.
“Diana, you’ve read too many novels.”
“Well excuse me! I would suspect some kind of overwhelming feeling or something, and all I get is your stupid smile making me feel like the world is ours.” She cocked her head at him, expecting a joking apology.
“Oh, and that’s not an overwhelming feeling at all?” his smile made her smile.
“Well…” She paused. “I’m sort of used to it, I mean, I’m a dreamer and what-not, it’s pretty common among the creative ones. All facts and logic people maybe not so much.”
He rolled his eyes. “So are you admitting you love me?” `
“I did not say that.”
“Well it sure sounds like that’s what you mean.” He raised his eyebrows.
“Are you trying to convince yourself otherwise?”
“No.” She folded her arms tighter around herself. “I’m not trying to convince myself, because I’m not in the position of needing convincing.” She bit her lip.
“The world could be ours, if you wanted it to.” He whispered.
“What are you going to do? Lasso it and give it to me?”
“I could try.”
“Uh-huh. And what are you going to do when that doesn’t work?”
“The next best thing.” He said, holding her gaze.
She could see thoughts swirling in his dark eyes, different answers, maybe. She waited, standing only inches away, ready to hear him out. Ready for his next words.
“The next best thing…” He held eye contact, confident. “If I can’t give you the world, Diana, I’ll give you a piece of it.”
“Dirt, you’re going to give me dirt?” she raised her brows, testing his reaction.
“Yes, Diana, I’m going to give you lots and lots of dirt.” His eyes twinkled at her once again.
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m serious.” He enfolded her hands in his. “Except this won’t be just dirt, Diana, it’ll be your dirt.”
“Oh, my dirt? That makes it so much better.”
“Yes.” He let go of one of her hands, turning her so that she stood just in front of him. He spread his fingers out in front of them, as if he were giving her a presentation.
She felt like they were dancing, his fingers entwined with hers, resting against her waist, standing nearly against him under the moonlight. And he was talking about dirt. Definitely the moment she had in mind.
“Imagine it, Diana, brown dirt, green grass-”
“Blue sky, yellow sun.” She interrupted.
“We can put a house on the dirt.”
“Definitely don’t want it to cover the grass.”
“Paint it any color you like.”
“What about red? Can we make it look like a barn, and the barn look like the house, so whenever the guests come over they go to the wrong place and we don’t have to cook?”
“And let all our children tell strangers we live in a barn and Mommy doesn’t cook.”
Her smile widened, and she had an odd sort of sensation cross her chest when he said that. Their house, their children… She tilted her head up to look at him. “I would like that.” She whispered.
“Living in a barn?” he smiled, his eyes alight like she’d never seen them.
“No.” She bit her lip, staring into his eyes. “Marrying you, Wesley.”
He stared back. “Are you sure?” he whispered.
She glanced back to where his hand still hung in the air, placing where the dirt would stop, the grass would grow, and the house would rise. Where their children would run about in the sunshine, not a care in the world upon their shoulders. She could see it, crystal clear. And she loved it. She loved him. Truly, She was ready to pour herself out day by day, for him.
She looked back up at him. “I’m sure. I’ve never been more sure of anything else.”
He dropped his hand, a slow smile crossing his lips. “Cause if I remember correctly, you said the moment you got a chance, you would exile me into “the oblivion”. Whatever “the oblivion” is.”
She pursed her lips, trying to look innocent. “Maybe I was being a tad over-dramatic, don’t you think?”
“I hope that’s not your way of telling people: ‘I love you’.”
“No, usually I just say it.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Well go ahead, I’m listening.”
She sighed, leaning her head back against his chest and looking up at the stars. “I love your pig-headedness…”
His arm tightened around her waist. “Diana Ashdown, that does not count.”
She laughed. “It does too.”
“It does not and you know it.”
She could practically hear the smile on his face. “I love you, Wesley.” She whispered. “On the days you love me, and the days you don’t want to talk to me.”
“And what happens when life rocks the boat?”
“Well just remember jumping overboard in a storm will probably kill you…”
He responded by tickling her side.
After a moment of uncontrollable laughter she calmed enough to lean back and look up at him. “What will you do?”
“Love you.” He placed a kiss against her temple.
The house could never be built, and clouds could flock the skies each day, and both they and their children could be refugees in a strange land, and still… At the end of the day none of it really mattered. Because she loved him.
That ending, though!!! *sobs* So sweet and tender and yet tinged with humor! Let me know what you thought - and what you're looking forward to the most about Tell Me You Love Me anthology - in the comments below!