I was right about the look on his face, Casey thought, hardly able to breathe as Tom gazed at her in the green dress when he first arrived to pick them up. The moment was so tense with desire that neither one of them felt able to move or speak. Sam broke it up, muttering out loud as he walked past Tom, “They never understand how cruel it is to look like that when you’ve got some place to be.”
They both laughed and Tom took her hand, safely remaining a few feet away from her. He bowed, kissing the back of her glove. “How did I ever mistake you for a boy?” he asked. He squeezed her hand before dropping it and offering her his arm. “You are beautiful beyond belief, Casey. I must warn you: My family are simple folk. They will be overwhelmed by you.”
She stopped in alarm, suddenly afraid again. “Is the dress wrong?” she asked him anxiously. “Is it improper for this?”
He laughed again, but didn’t answer, which wasn’t particularly reassuring, as he brought her out to the car. Sam was already waiting, and Tom helped Casey with her travel gear before seeing her safely ensconced in the front seat. When she was seated, he kissed her lips lightly. “The dress is perfect, sweetheart. They’re going to love you.”
She hoped that they did, because almost from the first moment, Casey loved Tom’s family. She realized she should have known it would be like this. Tom was sunny and empathetic, loving to laugh, and to make others laugh. It should not have been a surprise to discover his family was more or less the same.
If she had thought this would be a calm and cultured introduction to Tom’s parents, her notion was disabused as they entered the house. It turned out that anyone claiming relation to “Tommy” had insisted on being there, so in addition to his three brothers, sister-in-law, and nephew, there were cousins galore–first, second, third–Casey lost count. Even Alexander Carlisle was there with his family. He was, after all, first cousin to Tom’s mother. There were people everywhere, children and babies in abundance, with dogs and the occasional cat showing up to be petted by someone. This could not have been further from Lady Pirrie’s drawing room, and Casey felt it hard to believe the relationship existed between the families.
She would not have said they were “overwhelmed” by her, but everyone was friendly, and included her and Sam in any conversation. Tom’s brothers were all together in a corner when he brought her over to meet them. The three men were standing tall and stiff, with arms crossed over their chests. They looked down at her with stern disapproval as she approached with Tom, and her steps slowed. Her hand, resting on Tom’s arm, trembled. He looked heavenward in brief exasperation as they stopped in front of the solemn blockade.
“My brothers,” he said to her. “Harmless as kittens, I assure you.”
Men in Black. That’s exactly what they look like. Casey laughed, aware she sounded slightly hysterical. The tableau broke up, as the brothers gave in to snickers, poking each other, shaking her hand, and all talking at once. John was the eldest, two years older than Tom, and every bit as handsome. James was the shortest–which didn’t mean much–and Willie, the youngest, was the tallest of all. After a minute, an elegant woman joined them and was introduced as John’s wife, Jessie. Their sister, Nina, was in England, and they all expressed hopes that Casey would meet her soon. Tom stayed at her side, but their banter was amusing and friendly, and she did not feel uneasy for a single moment.
Tom was careful to stay with her as much as possible. If he was called away, he tugged her along with him, so that she never felt deserted. But he couldn’t help her through every moment, and when they gathered in the sitting room and he formally introduced her and Sam to his parents, he had to sit back and leave her to it.
The room was large and formal, but crowded with bright fabrics and bric-a-bracs. A massive fireplace provided warmth, the flames reflecting off brass fixtures and gleaming in the polished wood of the elegant furniture. The multitude moved in and out of the room and the noise continued, but for a few moments, Tom’s immediate family existed in a bubble as they appraised the girl who had captured his heart.
“Tommy has told us you came to Ireland upon the deaths of your parents, Casey,” Mrs. Andrews began, “Allow me to express our condolences for your loss. You must have felt so alone.”
Casey swallowed hard at the formal words. But they’re not dead! she still wanted to scream whenever she heard this type of thing. She struggled to smile and accept the sentiment, if not the facts. “Thank you ma’am. That’s very kind.”
“We understand you’ve had a difficult year,” Mr. Andrews said. “I hope you’re finding Ireland a more pleasant place now that your situation is improving.”
“Oh, I always have,” Casey replied. “It’s a beautiful country and so full of possibilities.”
They seemed amused at this, but Tom spoke up. “Aunt Marge may have mentioned that Casey is working with the Horticulture Society. She was already familiar with Lord Plunkett’s work in agriculture and the use of land.”
This created quite a stir among the family, as Horace Plunkett was a close friend. The conversation centered for a while on the plight of Ireland’s farmers and the work being done to improve their lot. None of the family acted surprised or insulted that a woman had knowledge of this, or that she had strong, educated opinions about what needed to be done. Their calm acceptance of her went a long way toward helping her relax, so she almost missed the religious question when it came up. It turned out it was directed at Sam.
“You’re from Belfast, Mr. Altair?” The question came from Mr. Andrews and Casey saw Sam was startled. He had told her he was just going to have a good time being in the presence of people he’d read about in history books.
“Londonderry, actually,” he replied. He and Casey had decided it was better to have him living just a few years in Belfast, rather than the true tale of moving there at eight years of age. It helped explain his lack of current connections. “I spent several years in the States and have only recently returned.”
“Tom tells us you haven’t settled on a church, yet. Do let me know if I can introduce you to one of the ministers in Belfast. I think you’ll enjoy meeting them.”
Sam simply nodded and they lost themselves in the rest of the conversation and soon, dinner was announced. As the adults prepared to enter the dining room, another issue of import raised itself. The children were gathered up to pay their respects before heading off to the nursery and their own meal. As they bowed and curtsied, Casey overheard a small girl whisper in a voice filled with disdain, to the older child standing next to her. “She has red hair!” The older child whispered a mortified “Hush!” before quickly offering a curtsey. A nanny descended to take the little girl in hand, leading her away, but the plaintive voice clearly reached the adults, “But why would Cousin Tommy want a wife with red hair?”
The embarrassed silence was broken by Casey’s giggle, which she tried to muffle behind her hand. She looked up at Tom’s pink but grinning face, and added, “It’s short, too!”
Amid the general laughter this brought, she accepted their apologies, as well as a grateful kiss from Tom, which caused more laughter and some teasing. They went on in to dinner.
It was unusual for Tom’s parents to make the trip to Belfast on a weekday, but they were at his flat when he came home from work on Monday. His mother had prepared a meal and they poured him some tea while he tried to stay calm. This did not bode well.
“There’s no point beating the bush, Tommy,” his father said as they sat down to eat. “You’ll be knowing we have concerns about your young lady.”
Tom wasn’t hungry. “Aye,” he said, watching his father’s face. “I expected so.”
His mother reached over and squeezed his hand. “Don’t look so nervous, Tommy. We’re not here to condemn her.”
A small smile tugged at his mouth, but he was finding it difficult to breathe as he turned to her. “You would never condemn anybody,” he told her. “But you understand I’m hoping for approval.”
Her gaze flicked to her husband before she nodded, once. Then she looked at her son and sighed. “My greatest wish for my children is that they find love in their marriages. And I have no doubt that young woman adores you. But Tommy,” she shook her head a little, “how can you have a marriage with someone you can’t pray with? Someone who will not read Scripture with you? Who will not even attend church with you?”
“She’ll come around,” he said, knowing he had no right to say it. “She’s just never been taught.” He turned in his chair to face her. “Consider the changes she’s been through in the last year or so. Her life has been a struggle for survival after horrible loss. Give me time with her. She needs love and care.” He swallowed, feeling misery rising in his gut. “She’ll come around,” he said again.
“She must, Tom.” His father’s voice was quiet, but Tom didn’t miss the firmness with which he spoke. “At the very least, she’ll attend church regularly. You must make sure she understands that.”
Tom tried to make himself nod, but found he couldn’t. His father studied him a moment and continued. “Your sister-in-law is a godly woman, and an excellent example of the traits you should look for in a wife. She comes from a church-going family, she prays with her household staff, and sees to their religious duties. We are willing to overlook Casey’s family situation, her months of deception, even the fact that she is American. But I would be a most negligent father if I allowed you to marry a girl who could not raise your children according to Scripture, or who will run your household without the guidance of the Heavenly Father.”
“It won’t be like that.” Tom looked from one to the other. “I promise, I’ll work with her on it. We’ll work it out.” He held out a hand, begging. “You saw how wonderful she is. How good she is, even if she’s not religious. Please, just give me time.”
They seemed to relax. “We will,” his mother said, rising to warm the tea. She kissed the top of his head. “Your good influence will do wonders, I’m sure.”
He felt it best to be honest with Casey when he talked to her the next night. To his relief, she seemed grateful.
“I knew this would be the sticking point,” she said, as they talked over hot chocolate in the parlor. Her face was sad and she stared into her cup, as if the answer would appear there. She sat on the window seat, her stocking feet tucked under her. She had taken him seriously when he said she could take her shoes off when he was around, and he was glad she had. It reminded him of the trust she had in him.
“Sam tells me I won’t be able to get around this,” she continued. “He says it’s too ingrained in the culture.”
“I have to leave it up to you Casey,” Tom said. He felt as if his heart was going to stop beating. He wanted to get through this more than anything, with Casey still at his side. “I would never try to force you to do this. But…” he waited a moment, trying to get control of his voice, “I’m begging you to do it.”
She didn’t answer for a minute. Her eyes were dry, but when she spoke, her voice was husky with tears. He had to lean forward to hear her. “I could go. Every week. But I still won’t believe it. I’ll end up hating it. And resenting it.”
“If you do, then I would want you to stop,” he said. “But you have to take it one step at a time.”
“What’s the barest minimum I can do?” she asked. He saw her shaky attempt at a smile and he gave up trying to not touch her. Moving to sit beside her, he pulled her against him, relieved when she snuggled into his shoulder. He could never give her up. In the other timeline, had he ever come this close to rebelling against his family’s wishes? He was going to marry her, no matter what happened.
“Sunday mornings,” he said. “Just the church service. You might consider Sunday School or one of the women’s groups, just to find friends. But you don’t have to. Come to Comber on weekends and go to church with my family.” He squeezed her briefly. “Bow your head during family prayers.” She giggled. Neither she or Sam had done that when the family prayed before dinner and one of the older children had mentioned it, and was promptly called to task for not bowing his own head. He touched her hair and she raised her head to look at him. “That’s all for now. Start small.”
She nodded, and he felt a slight loosening in his chest. There was a chance.