FINCH TURNED into oncoming traffic, veered sharply back into the left lane, and waved an apology to the alarmed elderly couple in their little touring car. They stared wide-eyed, and the stout woman glared as her husband navigated them past Finch’s rented four-door. After they passed he grimaced, sighed, and then turned into a grassy parking lot.
When the rental company confirmed he for sure wanted such a big car, Finch laughingly pointed out what he’d chosen was quite small. He wished he could go back to that moment and accept the suggestion to take the microscopic jelly bean of a two door, instead. Between the narrow, sometimes less than one-lane roads and still getting used to driving on the wrong side, Finch needed every advantage he could get.
Aside from a battered Range Rover under a tree at the opposite end, the lot was empty. Finch relished the idea of being able to explore without the hustle-bustle of fellow tourists—part of why he got there a few minutes before they opened for the morning. He grabbed his things, started down the lane to the entrance, and left behind the too big car and any upset from nearly ramming the disgruntled elderlies.
Morning mist gathered into a light pattering rain, but Finch wasn’t bothered. He wore a snug knit cap and a sensible, waterproof jacket and boots. He was in England, and rainy weather was to be expected. Finch would be disappointed if every day held clear blue skies. Besides, the mizzle no doubt helped to keep people away.
As he approached the small entry tent he fumbled in his cargo pants’ leg pocket for his pass. Finch had made three splurges for his trip. The touring pass, the rental car, and the full tea he planned to have at Harrods or Claridge’s, once he got to London. Otherwise he planned everything to be painfully budget conscious, from his narrow coach-class plane seat to bunking with strangers in hostels and his instant-oatmeal breakfasts and dinners.
“Ah yes. Good morning! Nice to see a show of stoutness in the face of this weather.” A man in the ticket tent smiled. He had silver hair and friendly crinkles around his eyes. His badge identified him as Adam and had Volunteer written on it, inside the drawing of an acorn.
“What weather?” Finch teased and produced his National Trust pass.
“And an American, to boot. Welcome to you. Have you been here long?”
“This is my first morning. I pried myself out of bed and got going to stave off any jet lag.” Finch yawned hugely enough to swallow the tent. “It’s a work in progress, anyway.”
Adam chuckled. “Good for you. Always helps to get going and keep going—at least so I’ve heard. Never been out of England myself. Staying long then?”
Finch wished he could say any number of things other than “No. Only two weeks.” But that was the truth, and he made himself content with it.
“There’s a little tea shop here, around the corner from the waterway. Get you a nice cuppa after you’ve had a look round. Be ready for a warm-up, then, I’m sure.” Adam at last looked at Finch’s pass and frowned. “But just the one of you, then?”
Finch’s eyebrows went up. “Uh. Yeah?”
“It’s only that you’ve a pass here for two. See?” Adam turned the pass onto his palm and scored his thumbnail below the printed Admit 2x1.
“No?” Finch shook his head. “I bought an admit-one-for-two-weeks pass. Didn’t I?”
“Oh. Oh no. I’m afraid not. This is admit two for one week!” Adam tutted. “You’re not the first to stumble over this, if it makes you feel any better.”
It didn’t. Finch offered a tight smile and didn’t dwell on the irony of having inadvertently bought a pass for two. The reason he planned the trip to England was something he’d vowed not to think about.
“Don’t worry, though. It won’t keep you from getting in anywhere.” Adam nodded. “And you can always buy one for next week.”
“Yes, good point. So long as I’m good to get in, I don’t mind,” Finch lied. “I should write a letter to the Trust’s webmaster. The pass information and choosing what to buy isn’t the least intuitive.”
Finch forced a light tone, but disappointment and anger burned through him. It wasn’t in his already slim budget to spring for another week’s pass, and he’d gone and wasted money on the wrong kind—after making triply sure he understood what the “admit one times two times one” description meant. He sighed and took back his pass and the pamphlet Adam tucked around it.
The vague picture of enjoying hot tea and a bit of shelter from the rain evaporated before it even fully formed. Finch made quick mental calculations. Maybe, if he scraped, he could manage another week’s pass. He could turn in the rental car early, and then stick to places he could get to by foot and train.
“Just keep going down the lane, there.” Adam hooked a finger to indicate the direction. “And follow the signs. You won’t miss it. Some of the property is still privately owned, so mind you stay on the paths. And photography is allowed in the works and grounds, but that’s all.” He peeped out at the rain. “Want to borrow an estate brolly?”
Finch considered the word and context—umbrella. “No, I’m fine. Appreciate it.”
When Adam straightened and looked past Finch in reaction to something he couldn’t see, Finch cast a glance over his shoulder. He looked away again, hoping to appear cool and casual, but regret swamped him that he wasn’t taller, better dressed, and handsome.
Because the new arrival to the tent defined each of those things—broad-chested with broader shoulders, honey-hazel eyes, and thick, dark hair—all packaged in fine tweeds and a caramel-colored sweater. He had big square hands, and the sweater hugged all the right places for Finch to get a sense of strength and innate physical confidence. Like an outsized Disney prince.
The newcomer passed a pleasant, if disinterested, eye over Finch’s unremarkable and damp person.
Finch had been reassured his gray eyes and dark red hair were striking, but otherwise it couldn’t be denied that he was plain. Nice-looking, and on occasion even attractive, but not handsome or devastating or hot like burning. He put his stock in a lifetime of studying the mirror and men who gave him only one glance, if they even noticed—even though his friend Heather dramatically promised he had “eyes like a stormy sea with lashes to die for.”
He wished there were more to him for that tall, dark, and handsome hunk to linger over. Foolish to mind, but he did—Finch hadn’t regretted not being more than simply him in a long while. The likelihood of winding up in a National Trust estate tent on a rainy day with a dashing stranger who would return his spark of attraction was miniscule. At best.
Yet there they were.
“Are you here to see the works too?” Finch asked.
Adam began to say something, but the stranger interrupted.
“Yes, indeed I am. Perfect morning for a good long walk, isn’t it?” The stranger seemed to acknowledge Finch’s sensible outfit, and nodded.
Finch wasn’t usually chatty, outgoing, or impulsive. Coming on this trip—alone, without the promise of a job when he got back, and when he had no practical business doing so—was decidedly out of character. Perhaps other attributes had lined up to follow suit, because he found himself extending an unexpected invitation.
“Maybe you’d like to join me? I mean, I don’t want to infringe on your long walk. It’s just that I bought the wrong thing.” He waved his admit-two pass. “Two for this week, not one for two weeks. Except I’m only one,” he put emphasis on each number and explained wryly. Heat rose into his cheeks, but since he stood alone in the admission tent without a soul waiting for him, why bother pretending differently? He’d never see Adam or the tall stranger again, anyway. His innate practicality tipped the balance the rest of the way. “Since we’re both here, might as well use it. Right?”
The man plucked the pass from his hand and scanned it.
“So it is two for one week. Hmm.” He nodded. “It’s agreed. Thank you.” He returned the pass to Finch and inclined his head at Adam. “Quite kind. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Adam merely blinked.
The man had a deep, deliberate voice to match his craggy, aristocratic good looks, and Finch pulled the complete cliché by loving his accent. Very posh. But then, almost all English other than Cockney sounded posh to Finch.
“Pamphlet?” Adam asked and held another out.
“Thank you, no.” The man’s eyes glittered with humor and he waved toward the lane. “Shall we, then?”
Finch found himself ushered along. “Thanks,” he called as they exited.
Adam waved vaguely and stared after them.
The drizzle had coalesced into steady rain, and Finch smiled when a fat raindrop hit his eyebrow and dripped onto his cheek.
“Whereabouts in America are you from, Finch?”
The man watched him with an amused expression and a bit more attention than before. Finch blinked.
“Your full name is on the Trust pass. Finch Mason, it reads.” Mr. Tall-And-Broad uncurled a driving cap from his pocket, fit it on his head, and then stuck out a hand. “I’m Benedict. Welcome to England and the Maylenwick Mill.”
“Oh, yeah. And thank you,” Finch answered and took Benedict’s hand in a firm shake. A magical charge didn’t generate between them, but their hands were well suited. Finch’s smaller one fit comfortably in Benedict’s wide, warm grasp. “Delaware. For the moment.”
Benedict’s eyes widened. “Is a change imminent?”
“Maybe, maybe not. I’ve just been thinking about making one. The idea is half-baked, at best, but it’s nothing sinister. Scintillating. Or even that interesting.” He stopped before he got going. Dreamy Benedict didn’t need the story of his life.
“Finch is an unusual first name.”
“And where anything unusual about me begins and ends,” Finch countered.
“Hmm.” Benedict gave him a quick but thorough study. “Someone other than you will be the better judge of that, I’m sure.”
Finch wanted to ask if that someone would be Benedict, but didn’t. He changed the subject instead. “Have you been here before?”
Benedict noticed but went along. “I take my dogs for a good run here when I can, but I haven’t popped into the works for some time.”
“Dogs?” Finch hadn’t seen any. “Are they in your car?”
“No, no. They had to stay home today.” Benedict paused and sounded grave when he asked, “Why? Are you afraid or nervous of dogs?”
Finch broke into a wide grin. “Not even. I’d probably be as excited to see dogs as I am the mill.”
“Ah. Just so.” Benedict nodded. “A shame they couldn’t come. I’ll make it up to them later. This is a beautiful place with some good history.” He floated a hand over the surrounding countryside.
“The Maylenwick Mill is the only four drop-wheel system in Britain fed by a spring,” Finch said. “The water goes up terracotta pipes to be stored in a cistern, then runs through elevated wooden troughs to the various wheels. The pipes are original, and the wheels and equipment are all still operational. There’s even a working bakery using the mill’s grain.” He stopped for breath, then curled both hands around his dog-eared Complete Guide to England and sighed.
Benedict likely knew all of that or didn’t care. Finch had never been good at providing sparkling wit, and he’d never been a flirt. But his smarts and diverse interests usually made for good conversation. With Benedict listening, it didn’t seem like enough, and for the second time that morning, something that hadn’t bothered him in years rattled his confidence.
“So are you particularly interested in works and industrial sites?” If Benedict thought Finch’s enthusiasm gauche, it didn’t show. He leaned in to say, “I have to confess I knew about the bakery. Their scones alone are worth a trip in the rain.”
Finch nodded in agreement, grateful for Benedict saying that, but didn’t pursue the subject of tea and scones any further. He wasn’t going to presume that was an invitation, even if his stomach chose that moment to rumble with appreciative anticipation.
“I’m interested in everything,” he said expansively. “Historic homes, Roman ruins, rambling estates and gardens, Neolithic sites. Whatever dorky pursuit there is to be had, I’m in.”
“You’re in luck. Britain is overrun with such, er, dorky pursuits. And I hope you enjoy the mill especially, then. Give you a good start on your trip.”
Finch couldn’t smother a yawn and nodded. Benedict must have overhead him talking with Adam.
They walked in silence, and the gravel lane crunching underfoot filled the quiet. Finch thought they’d split up as they neared the cluster of squat buildings comprising the mill site, where the works trail and the estate trail diverged. But Benedict stayed with him and shadowed Finch’s lead into the grain mill and then the carpenter’s shop.
He read every sign and examined each informational display. He tripped a light touch over huge millstones, bins loaded with plug nails, and dovetailed support beams. The musty interior muted the rain, but didn’t quite stave off the chill. Finch poked in every corner and took endless photos of details and tableaus in the subdued light.
Another volunteer awaited them in the bakery. She offered samples of Maylenwick Mill’s very own wheat bread and showed off various antique implements. Finch listened with complete absorption, only somewhat aware of Benedict moving around the room. After the presentation he thanked the volunteer and wished he could afford to buy a loaf of the bread. Then he ducked outside onto the cobblestone courtyard to see the water troughs.
The rain hadn’t let up, and Finch accepted it had settled in for the whole day. Fine by him.
He stood by the lead, elevated trough and watched overhead as a sluice door opened to let water in from the cistern. Then the water followed channels to the four wheels spinning in rectangular, limestone-lined pools dug alongside each building. The slow and steady repeating action of the wheels and flow of the water mesmerized Finch, and the deceptively simple engineering fascinated him.
“It’s ingenious,” Finch said when Benedict came to stand next to him. “I totally get why this is a protected place. And I’m glad the owners turned it over to the Trust so we can see it.”
“I’ve always been quite taken with it.” Benedict’s voice had a ring of pride.
Finch smiled. How charmingly nationalistic.
They followed the troughs to their end, where the last of the water runoff fed into a nearby stream that flowed in a natural, generous bend around the mill site. He watched the stream burble and go around another gentle bend to meet back with the countryside, and a whiff of something delectable wafted in the air. Finch remembered the teahouse and then his distinct lack of funds and tried to ignore it and his hunger.
“What do you say?” Benedict asked.
Finch shook his head at the polite, and perhaps genuine, suggestion. “I have lunch plans for later. But thanks.” His stomach rumbled again. Loudly.
Benedict kindly said, “This isn’t lunch. It’s tea. And not even full afternoon tea, at that.”
“I shouldn’t.” Finch hesitated. He yawned and then thought to say, “You still haven’t gotten to your morning walk.”
“So what was all that tromping around we just did?” Benedict nudged Finch. “The caffeine will do you good, at least. And it’s only fair I treat, since I’m in on your pass. Besides, I have a voucher.”
“A voucher?” That sounded hopeful.
Benedict’s eyes gleamed. “Yes. Two cream teas, and really meant to be for two.”
“Really for two?” Finch echoed, mock-seriously. “Well. That decides it.”
The teahouse was more of a tea hut, built in the neat and bright retrofitted grain storage shed. Oversized work lamps hung from the ceiling, providing ample light without looking out of place. Its plank floor was scrubbed, and the stone walls had a coat of whitewash. One wall had windows that curved to match the bend in the stream, and photographs of the mill and its equipment were hung here and there. Tucked into the narrow end that backed up to the bakery, the food station and tables fanned out, along the curving wall.
Finch liked it immediately.
“I’ll order. Why don’t you pick a table?” Benedict waved at the small interior.
“First I’m detouring to the… loo,” Finch said with purpose. “Or is it WC? I can’t quite bring myself to say toilet yet.” He explained to Benedict’s blank look, “It’s not really associated with anything positive in American vernacular. Then I’ll pick a table.”
“I can’t abide the term either, so we’re agreed.” Benedict nodded. “Excellent. That’s sorted.” He turned on his heel toward the tiny food counter and left Finch to it.
Finch discovered a quite modern and larger bathroom than he expected. Definitely an addition. He’d have to read more about the Maylenwick Mill’s history when he got back to the hostel. He saw to his needs, washed his hands, and then stared in the mirror.
Some of his hair had escaped his cap and had plastered to his forehead in rusty curls. The chilly air reddened his nose, and fatigue had drained his cheeks of color, making his freckles more pronounced. Finch tugged off the cap and fluffed his hair. Then he closed his eyes to the sight, shrugged, and went back into the dining room.
There were three bistro sets in the tearoom and a table built into a low-sashed window. He made a beeline for that one and took the wingback chair that faced the window. Soon Benedict joined him, and Finch turned an appreciative eye to the tray laden with two gleaming stainless pots of tea, massive scones, and crocks of clotted cream and jam.
He hadn’t eaten since the airplane’s idea of breakfast, and that had been hours earlier.
“We can have a go at a scone while the tea finishes steeping,” Benedict said as he folded his height onto the sturdy window seat.
Finch didn’t need to be told twice. He attacked a scone, cut it in lengthwise slices, and slathered each finger with jam and cream.
“You were right. These are delicious. Thank you,” he said past the last bite. He added milk and sugar to his tea and had a long drink. Finch smiled happily—hot and strong and sweet, just like he liked. There were two more scones and a second plate with tiny cakes piled on it. “All this for cream tea?”
“Err… more like all this thanks to my voucher. I wouldn’t count on it at every Trust location you visit.” Benedict nudged the scone plate closer to Finch. “Have your second while it’s still warm.”
Benedict had finished one too, and Finch lost any self-consciousness when Benedict reached for another. He ate the scone with less haste and then moved on to the cakes. They were spongy and filled with raspberry jam and almond paste.
“These are so good,” he said and then ate a third cake. Finch thought the pots of tea, two huge scones, and all these cakes would be sustaining enough for him to skip lunch. “It’s really great of you to share your voucher like this—and just on me.”
“Not at all,” Benedict said mildly and propped his elbows on the table.
Finch drained his second cup of tea and demolished every crumb. Then he sat in something of a stupor—full and warm and lulled by the rain. He leaned against the chair wing and watched the water system work. The trap door opened, water cascaded through the troughs, and each wheel turned, picked up speed, then slowed to a stop again.
“Finch?” He made a sleepy noise and drew a leg onto the seat under him. “Are you finished?”
Benedict’s voice had an edge. Finch caught Benedict’s eye and thought he saw boredom, maybe even impatience. He sat up and began to stack the dishes on the tray.
“Sorry.” Embarrassed heat itched his skin, and disappointment lodged in his chest. He shook both away. “Caffeine or not, jet lag is catching up with me.”
“I just didn’t want you to fall asleep and ruin your attempts to get past any jet lag. Plus we haven’t seen the saw pit yet.” Benedict’s voice smoothed and quieted again, as if making up for the sharp words. He took the tray from Finch and stood.
“I can look on the way back to my car. Thank you again for tea,” Finch said and stood up. He jammed his cap on and headed for the door.
Benedict carried the tray one-handed to the counter and thanked the two attendants—a young man and woman who had to be brother and sister. Finch waved at them, and they goggled a bit and then waved back.
Must not get a lot of Americans. That and his carroty hair.
Benedict’s long-legged stride easily caught Finch a few steps from the teahouse.
“I must get back to my car as well. There’s no reason we can’t continue on and then to the carpark together.” Benedict ushered Finch along a narrow track that passed between two buildings.
It sounded so reasonable Finch agreed.
The saw pit was a blunt rectangle cut deep into the ground, and its straight sides were overgrown with moss. A thick board bridged the pit lengthwise, and a wire grid covered the opening in an unobtrusive nod to safety. Finch tiptoed to the edge and peered down into it. Diffuse light reflected off the puddles in the bottom. A section of tree trunk bigger around than his chest sat next to the pit, positioned as if ready to roll into the huge V-shaped holders on either side of the opening. He frowned at Benedict and then studied the pit again. It wasn’t what he expected, and he tried to work out how sawing would be done.
Benedict’s eyebrows perked. “So, if I stood down in there, and you were up here on the plank, and we each held either end of a very long saw…?” he said leadingly.
Finch imagined Benedict’s description. After a moment it clicked, and he had the concept in mind—sawing up and down while walking forward in tandem. He let out a long noise of satisfaction, and they shared a look. A smile teased the corner of Benedict’s mouth. Benedict’s approval pleased Finch unaccountably, but he still glowed from the intimated praise.
“I’m glad you’re in the pit and not me.” Finch shuddered.
“Getting showered with sawdust isn’t your idea of fun?”
Finch backed away. “Dark, cramped places aren’t my idea of fun.”
At the informational sign, complete with pictures of the pit in use, he crossed his arms to hold his elbows and read. He really hated the idea of falling down there or having to be in the saw pit, but he admired the process they used to cut trunks into rough lumber.
Lingering ghost sensations of being enclosed in the pit shivered over him. He had a last look at it and started to walk toward the parking lot. Finch shivered again but blamed the rain. It had picked up and fell hard enough to drench him.
“Late autumn isn’t the ideal season for English countryside sightseeing.” Benedict fell into step next to Finch, and while his statement could be taken as an opening for more conversation and not a diversion from Finch’s fear of the pit, he didn’t push.
“I don’t need ideal.” Finch spread his hands in front of them. “I’m actually here in England seeing actual amazing English stuff. That’s good enough for me. Besides, late autumn is when I could get time off to make the trip.”
Benedict seemed to consider his words and then asked, “And did no one else have time off to join you?”
Finch blushed, thinking about Chad and Chad’s empty promises, and his own foolishness. Then he shoved everything to do with Chad aside. It wasn’t important, and it didn’t matter, and he refused to let it be a dark cloud hanging over him or his dream vacation.
“I don’t mind doing things alone. Alone can be good. You can set your pace and choose exactly what you want to do, and no one complains when you take fifty pictures of one gristmill cog.” Finch shrugged. “I like it. I do a lot of things on my own,” he said with a touch of defiance, avoiding the question but inadvertently revealing much with very little.
The rain had soaked Finch’s pants, so the cuffs flopped heavy and wet against his legs, and water ran in rivulets down his neck and into his jacket. They picked up their pace and didn’t talk the rest of the way to the carpark.
Finch turned and offered Benedict his hand. “Besides,” he said with infused cheer he didn’t realize sounded wistful, “I didn’t sightsee alone today. Thank you.”
Benedict took his hand, and Finch savored its warmth and how nicely it fit to his.
“No, thank you. I arrived just in time to make use of your generous offer.”
Finch nodded, grabbed the passenger door, and then sighed and walked to the driver’s side. “A happy accident,” he said and got in. He opened the window and smiled at Benedict, also soaked through, but seemingly impervious. “Nice meeting you, Benedict at Maylenwick Mill. Take care.”
Benedict patted the roof of his car, and Finch made himself drive away without asking if they could have lunch, and then dinner, and then another day’s sightseeing together. He waved over a shoulder and turned onto the road, careful to slot into the correct lane.
The windshield wipers and rain made for a soothing background to his thoughts as he drove to the next stop on his itinerary. Rain or no rain, he would see everything he planned.
Rather than get morose about the sharp contrast between being with Benedict and spending the rest of his trip alone, he should be grateful to have gotten such a day at all. A day of having a handsome prince to show him around and treat him to tea—it more than made up for his mistake with the National Trust pass.
He pushed aside the voice wanting to argue, clicked on the radio, found BBC News, and hummed with satisfaction at the dulcet voice telling him about the weather. Then he did his best to put Benedict out of his mind and paid attention to driving and traffic as he merged onto a busier road.
BENEDICT WATCHED Finch drive away and climbed into the battered Range Rover. It had been a surprising but diverting way to spend several hours. At first he felt sorry for Finch, clearly traveling alone, and then the lamentable Trust pass error. He accepted the offer to use the second entry before he fully realized what he’d done, and then was annoyed at doing so. In the end he enjoyed seeing the mill through Finch’s active eyes and sharing the day—and tea.
Striking, intelligent gray eyes, Benedict thought absently.
Finch traveling alone made him curious. He was sure there was more to the story than Finch wanted to share. But Finch also seemed without complaint about it, and in fairness, it wasn’t Benedict’s business. He’d shown Finch a good day, and more than did his duty as a good countryman welcoming a visitor. Having done so, he could wash his hands of any further involvement.
He flicked a glance at his watch. Plenty of day left to accomplish what he came to the mill for in the first place.
Benedict eased the car out of the lot and turned the opposite way Finch had gone. He traveled less than half a mile and turned down a different lane marked Private. As he went over how to get everything done in much less time than expected, he forgot all about Finch.