Note: I love Polly, and I feel so badly for her every time I write her interaction with Ben that I wanted to give her some happiness for a change. This began as a series of individual episodes, and as such, it doesn't have adequate transitions as a unified story. Right now, the scenes that ensue are not really within the realm of possibility. Depending on the future events of the game, I may make this canon, but for now, it's just in poor Polly's dreams. Also...I'm not sure Ben is entirely in character. Polly was speaking to me constantly throughout, but Ben was very obstinate. Regardless of that, prepare for sappiness. I've never prided myself on my ability to write romance.
Necessary background: Due to the whims of the muse, I began this fic in the middle of the story and never did write the beginning, so I'll summarize. Just before this excerpt, Ben and Sukey have returned home late at night after a social event. After Sukey goes to bed, Ben drops by the kitchen for a chat with Polly over a cup of tea, which is becoming a bit of a ritual. The conversation turns to the heartbreaks of their past--the death of Ben's older brother, whom he idolized, and the recent and tragic disappearance of Polly's father. It is the first time she has mentioned the subject to him, and she is visibly upset. Ben, out of a genuine desire to help, asks question after question and suggests different avenues to pursue. At last, it all becomes too much for Polly to bear, which is where this dialogue opens.
The wooden chair exclaimed against the cobblestone floor as Polly rose from the table and stalked to the fireplace to see to the tea kettle. “Why do you ask me these questions?” she scoffed, glaring, “As though you care! This is a kitchen, not a confessional! Just give me my pay, and I’ll do your work, and you keep out of my affairs.”
Ben recoiled at her words, completely baffled, but a spark of anger ignited in his breast. He seldom experienced anger, and hardly knew how to express the sting of this, this…betrayal. Why on earth didn’t he dismiss her for insolence, or perhaps downright insanity? What sort of servant would think of speaking in such a way to her employer, especially an employer who felt—yes, as he searched his heart—a genuine concern and affection for her? “Miss Tibbord,” he pleaded, struggling to keep his voice level, “don’t you care for us at all? How can you suspect us of indifference to your situation?”
“God!” choked Polly with a mirthless laugh, “Another question! How paternal. Just because my father is missing doesn’t mean I want another one.” She stoked the fire with a vengeance, ignoring the sparks that flew at her face and hoping that the heat might dry her eyes.
From across the room, Ben watched her with mounting pain. What could be at the root of all this? He had clearly struck a nerve with the discussion of her father, but even so, her reaction seemed extreme. “If you are trying to be let go without references, you’re doing a fair job of it,” he countered, his tone quiet, but grim. “You need not proceed like this if you want to leave. Only tell me. This is most unkind. I have been nothing but a friend to you.” She made no answer. Was it possible that she had reason to deliberately insult him? Did she somehow consider herself an injured party? “You would not say these things in Sukey’s hearing, I am sure. Have—” he faltered, “have I done something to give you offense? Polly?”
He rounded the table and approached her. As she raised her face to him, Ben noticed the unnatural brightness of her eyes, which glassily reflected the firelight. A deep flush overspread her cheeks and neck, visible even in the shadows.
He was too wonderful, irritatingly magnanimous, disarmingly considerate. She stared at him, letting her mind wander. What a perfect moment this could have been—he drew near her in the dark, beside a burning hearth, with starlight stealing through the window and no sound but the snapping coals and their breath. It had all been ruined before it had a chance to begin. Polly could have screamed, but instead she shuddered with the force of her emotion. Fear, frustration, hope, and despair mingled into a single knot in her chest. It lurched as Ben said her name again, and still she could not reply.
“Polly, are you unwell?” She appeared feverish, observed Ben, which might explain this entire episode. A red-gold curl lay plastered to her forehead, and he reached up only to find his arm swept forcefully aside. “Please, Mary,” he requested gently, though his wavering voice suggested considerable anxiety. “You are ill.”
“I am nothing of the kind,” Polly retorted at last, her heart pounding that he should pronounce her name—her real name—in such a way. No sooner had the words left her mouth, however, than she had cause for regret. Ben brushed away the damp curl with light, cool fingers against her brow, and another shudder coursed through her. Had she only excused herself with the claim of illness, lamented Polly, she might have been spared further agony in his company, might never have learned the touch of his hand on her cheek. It was enough to make her hurl a piece of crockery across the room, if only she’d had one.
“You do feel very warm,” Ben went on, “and the air is close in here. Perhaps if—oh!”
Her legs had suddenly threatened to give way beneath her, for reasons that had nothing to do with the air. She caught herself on the mantelpiece, but Ben’s arm slipped around her waist at the same moment. Wordlessly, he gathered her up and carried her, uncomplaining for once, from the kitchen into the total blackness of the hall. Thank goodness she was such a tiny thing, Ben considered as he slowly sought the parlor, for he was not a particularly strong man. Though she did her best to ease the load by clinging to his shoulders, Polly was aware that he was weakening by the time he set her in the window nook.
Their eyes had adjusted to the darkness now, and the moonlight sinking into the carpet guided Ben’s feet to the cabinet, where he poured a glass of brandy. Having delivered it to Polly, he returned for another, which he quickly downed himself. His pulse was not quite what it should have been, and the longer it continued rapid, the less able he was to blame it on exertion. The way she had looked at him as they crossed into the parlor made him distinctly uncomfortable.
Kneeling on the seat, he unlatched the window and opened it wide to admit the fresh scents of spring. As fresh as spring ever was in London. He coughed slightly and looked down at Polly. “Any better?” Her upturned face did little to reassure him.
It had been glorious to be in his arms for a few moments, but now she felt their absence more acutely. Why must he inflict so much damage and then press her to say she was well? Why couldn’t he have left her in peace? “The Continent is in better condition than I am at the moment,” she quipped, turning away to sip her brandy.
The return of sarcasm was, Ben concluded, probably a positive sign. He settled in next to her, being careful to leave sufficient space between them. Silence reigned, but for the almost inaudible slosh of liquid in Polly’s glass. If she hadn’t known that bottle to be Ben’s last, she would have been tempted to empty it; she was in the mood to forget the world.
Ben studied the way the slight breeze played with the loose tendrils at Polly’s temples. Her hair was sometimes blonde, sometimes fiery, in either case quite striking. Though she was hardly a pretty girl, he told himself—really not at all. In fact, in this light, it was apparent that she had several fine lines around her mouth and the corners of her eyes. Ben frowned, with realization rather than dismay. Small in stature and childish in features, Polly was easy to mistake for a young waif. Only occasionally did Ben recall that she was several years his senior, more a grown woman than he was a grown man. It surprised him that he had forgotten.
A curl floated forward and teased her lips as she lifted her head to drain the brandy. Beneath the moon, her throat shone a whitish blue, with a delicate chain around it he had never before perceived. His eyes followed it to a tiny cross, lying askew just over her heart. It must usually be concealed beneath her gown.
“I suppose you expect an apology,” she ventured suddenly, catching her pensive companion off-guard. “And I suppose you are right to do so. Therefore,” she breathed deeply and looked him in the eye, “I was very wrong to speak to you as I did. There is enough injustice in the world without my compounding it.” If the thudding against her ribs grew any more violent, Polly had a strange idea that she might explode. It was as though her heart were a poor creature in a zoo, rattling the bars of its cage. Something had to be done. “As I am fortified by drink,” she divulged, handing Ben her glass, “I will tell you that I do not believe I have ever met a better man in all my life.”
Ben had turned to set the glass atop the writing desk, and upon facing Polly again found her but a few inches away, regarding him intently. Under so significant a gaze, he could no longer doubt what illness afflicted her. His heart took up a frantic pace in his chest as he wrestled with himself. How on earth had they arrived at this moment? The previous few weeks sped through his mind with new clarity: Polly, ever-reliable for a pot of tea, a bit of advice, or a wry remark. He enjoyed her company and depended on her friendship. They had exchanged their share of glances—with regard to Sukey, Lord Selwyn, and any number of others—and Ben had assumed that they understood each other well. Yet, how ignorant he had been of her heart! How it must have tortured her to listen in silence as he praised and adored Lady Imogen. Lashing out at him, it now appeared, had been a last resort to preserve herself.
“Oh, Polly!” he whispered soulfully, “I am so sorry.”
Polly waited, expecting more—“I am so sorry! I have been blind!” would have been quite poetic, or “I am so sorry! I have loved you all along.” At very least, “I am so sorry—what have I done to you?” Any of these, succeeded by a sensitive, yet passionate kiss, and then a few more sensitive, yet passionate kisses, would have left Polly perfectly satisfied. She stared at him as though she might will the words from his mouth, but to no avail. Instead, Ben took her hand and squeezed it. Attempting to swallow, she found her throat dry—a cruel trick, she thought bitterly, when her eyes were so wet.
“Oh, hell,” she whimpered, and buried her head in the curtain. Her skull throbbed worse than the time she had fallen off the ladder in the grocery.
Ben could not have expressed it better. Still holding her hand, he sat watching her fitful breathing gradually give way to a regular rise and fall. Though she had not opened her eyes, she had let the curtain slip a bit, and he could distinguish most of her profile. The play of her features as she struggled to master herself distressed him. Earlier in the evening, when he had first gone to the kitchen to ask for tea, she had smiled, and he remembered a radiance in her entirely separate from her appearance—it had been joy. There was purer beauty in her joy than in the painted, powdered faces of the season’s most renowned debutantes. He’d never felt sorrier in his life.
“Polly?” Wide blue eyes, made bluer by crying, fixed on his own. He paused beneath their intensity. How could he say it? What would he even say? Could he trust the words that might tumble out once he had begun? “My dear Mary,” he resumed, her full name seeming more appropriate to the moment, “I never suspected that it might be within my power to injure you. This evening has been…a revelation…in several respects. I desperately wish I could erase all of your suffering, but I can only beg your forgiveness.”
More uncertain than ever, Polly inched towards him, a hesitation Ben found strangely endearing. Tenderly, he pressed her hand to his lips. Polly’s breath caught at the way his earnest eyes sought her out in the moonlight. “Will you forgive me, Mary?” came his voice again.
A mischievous smile spread across her face. “I’ll consider it.”
That smile! It put him in danger, Ben acknowledged. She offered her forgiveness, but would God offer His? Ben was in love with another woman, an angel of a woman, but one he could never wrap safely in his arms. How could it be anything but selfish to conduct himself in this manner? How could it be anything but his own loneliness and longing overpowering his reason? Every condition of their relationship convinced Ben that it would be abominable usage to encourage her; she was his servant, his social inferior, and most importantly, deeply attached to him. Polly deserved more than half his heart, however truly it admired and—dare he even entertain the possibility?—loved her.
Yet Ben was a man, not a saint, and as he felt her very nearness, the sensation of her fingers in his hair, curling around the back of his neck, it became increasingly difficult to question himself. She leaned towards him now, her lips grazing his cheek, trailing downwards…
“Polly!” he cautioned in soft, but firm tones. Pulling away with effort before his restraint crumbled, he sighed dejectedly. “I cannot allow this, for both our sakes, but most especially for yours.” He laid his hand over hers and, barely conscious of the fact, caressed it as he explained. “You know me better than anybody these days—you know that my heart is not wholly my own. I cannot promise that it ever shall be. It grieves me to see you hurt, and I cannot bear the thought of being the cause of your pain. Your love is precious. I am deeply honored that you should have bestowed it on me. But there are better objects for it. If I should embrace you now, it will only be worse for you in the end.”
Polly snatched her hand away and leapt to her feet. “I hear your objections,” cried she in exasperation, “and they are all true and noble and sensible, and I honor you for your selfless concern for my welfare. But if I choose to love you anyway there is nothing you can do about it! I can love you until the day I die if I like, and all your concern be damned!” Having, once again, no crockery on which to vent her fury, she seized Ben by the shoulders and kissed him.
He failed to notice the moment when his arms, instead of pushing her away, began to crush her close, or whether it was before or after that when he found himself returning her kiss with similar fervor. The how and when hardly mattered. Ben could not hold her enough, could not kiss her enough to convey his feelings; he was moved by the profoundest sense of gratitude. To be loved like this must be the finest prize a man could win on earth.
~*~ (this stands for time lapse when I don't want to write an extended kissing scene)
They sat for a while without speaking. Polly relished the sound of Ben’s heartbeat as she nestled in the folds of his shirt. She didn’t think she’d ever cried of joy before. All these years…. But now, the discontentment that had seethed beneath the surface passed into memory. Nothing—nothing could disturb the heavenly sensation of peace that had swept over her and settled in her soul.
“You had better go, Polly,” Ben’s voice murmured in the dark.
Why must he ruin everything?! Her head snapped to attention and she challenged him huffily. “What do you mean, ‘I had better go’?” If he intended to send her away from his service, she vowed she would not depart without a battle. “Allow me to guess—it is inappropriate for me to remain in this position when my reputation might be besmirched by a romantic entanglement with my employer. You will generously secure me a more suitable post and never see me again, and that is best for us both.”
Polly admirably expressed the workings of his mind, but his statement had not been meant to portend her dismissal. Already, he had considered and—for the present—rejected taking such an action. It was a delicate matter and demanded careful deliberation when he could be more objective. At the moment, with his arms encircling her and her kiss still clouding his mind, objectivity was quite impossible.
“No,” he corrected patiently, indicating the mantelpiece clock with a subtle smile. “I only noticed that it is three in the morning. It would be wise to get some sleep before dawn.”
“Oh.” Immediately businesslike, Polly extricated herself and smoothed the wrinkles in her skirt. “Hardly worth it, you know—I must be up again in an hour or two. Thank God it’s Sunday, at least. You won’t be expected at the bank, and no one would blame you for sleeping through today’s sermon. Most everybody else already does.” She set out for the kitchen with purpose in her step, but Ben called to her before she reached the door. Even in the poor light, the warmth from his eyes seemed to set the room aglow, or so Polly thought as she turned to face him.
“Yes, Mr. Hutchinson?”
His smile was broader this time, a pale crescent in the night. The ever-forthright Polly still using formal address? But he let it pass—they could discuss it another time.
“Rest as long as you like, Miss Tibbord,” he returned in kind. “I will prepare the tea in the morning.”
Polly bit her lower lip impishly. “Thank you, Sir. I’ll take mine with two sugars.”
She was out of the room in a whirl of skirts before Ben could say another word.