He always went to bed at precisely 10 p.m. and sent her to her own room across the hall twenty minutes later. Every night, she left her door open so she could hear his snores.
He always fell asleep before midnight.
She never actually slept, only napped for a few hours in the early morning.
Most nights, she simply curled up on a chaise lounge in the sitting room, bundling up under a heavy throw. The chaise was a gift from her husband, as were the countless blankets she’d acquired over the last year. Perhaps it meant he loved her; that he noticed her obsession with blankets, of all things, and set about buying the most luxurious throws he could find. If not for that one kindness, she might believe otherwise.
Not that her father had mismatched her. Neville was a good husband in every meaning of the word. Her wants, it seemed, were as important to him as her needs. He never raised his voice or spoke a cross word to her, not after that first week. But that wasn’t his fault.
Neville thrived on order. Consistency. The arrival of his new bride had thrown him for quite a loop. But Emma was a patient sort and learned to fit into his rhythm rather than try to blend it with her own.
Emma was spontaneous, too, but she quickly learned to stifle her flighty nature, at least in her husband’s presence. She enjoyed harmless, quiet acts of rebellion instead of impromptu shopping trips. It kept them both content.
Tonight, at the sound of his snores, she walked right past the familiar chaise and into the kitchen. Ice cream was perfect for such a warm night. She was tempted to use a fork to scoop it out, but that’d leave marks in the carton. Neville would probably never see them, but just to be safe, she used the correct utensil.
The bowl, on the other hand… Well, a porcelain pinch bowl wasn’t exactly what one was supposed to use to serve ice cream. No one would be the wiser once she was done.
It was perfect.
With the small, rapidly cooling bowl cupped in her palm, Emma made her way out of the glass house—as she’d come to think of it. One wrong step and she’d shatter their peaceful existence.
Outside, Emma stepped off of the pavers as soon as possible, preferring the feel of dew-kissed grass on her bare feet. She set the bowl on the bistro table under the massive oak tree in the center of the back yard.
A shaft of moonlight entranced her. The way it shone down through the thick branches, it almost seemed as though an angel was shining a heavenly light down through the clouds and canopy and fog. In the light of a full moon, even though most of it remained hidden from where she stood, the large hole in the base of the oak caught her eye.
Neville had insisted the tree remain, even though everyone told him it was dangerous. “One day,” they’d said, “that tree’s gone topple right over.” But her husband refused to have it chopped down. That, more than anything else, had endeared him to her.
She sat in one of the wrought iron chairs, the damp cushion wetting her backside, and studied the tree’s gaping wound.
In this light, the inside of the tree appeared impossibly soft. Not like the chenille blankets Neville had gotten her. Not like the down pillows and comforter for her bed, either. Not like its silk sheets.
Soft like carved wood that had been sanded. The bark, if that was bark within the hole, had no pattern.
Ice cream forgotten, Emma crawled over to the hole for a closer look. She placed one hand on the ground in front of her to keep from toppling into the opening, but where she expected to meet grass or soft earth, her palm touched cool metal.
Emma’s hands trembled with excitement as she searched for some sort of ring or notch. Finding nothing but a smooth, flat surface, she scooted on her bottom into the tree’s hole and felt the wood surrounding her.
It was exactly as soft as she’d thought it’d be. Someone had to have carved this opening into the tree. They must have stained it so that no one would notice. Or maybe the scar had simply darkened over time.
She went over every inch of the inside of that tree, to no avail. No lever. No button or switch. Nothing.
Emma crawled around the circumference of the trunk, which was quite a way around. She didn’t doubt Neville made the right choice to leave the tree standing. The hole, big as it was, hadn’t even eaten into an eighth of the tree’s massive girth. She encircled the tree twice: once to check the ground around it and again to check the tree itself, as high as she could reach. Then, for good measure, she made two more rounds.
Blue tits sounded out with their tap, tap, tap, announcing the arrival of an ungodly early hour.
Emma fled the yard, gathering her pinch bowl of ice cream and spoon on the way. She hurriedly washed the dishes, then herself. Neville would awaken within the next three hours. While that did leave her with plenty of time to avoid getting caught, she needed to try to get some sleep tonight.
Tomorrow night, she’d plan better. For now, she’d be content to fantasize. She imagined herself walking through a garden, her hand on Neville’s arm. Emma drifted off to dreams of a secret passage to a midnight garden filled with light orange Ranunculuses and deep pink Roses, all showy and vibrant and lush.