I ripped away the paper to find an exquisite gray cavalry coat, of fine wool with a cotton lining, like Stuart’s but smaller and without the general’s full butternut braid, and with it, trousers and a plumed hat. I sank to my knees and started to cry.
“What, Liam? Are you not happy?” Stuart’s distress was clearly genuine, and he knelt before me. Prying the package from my fingers, he laid it delicately on the ground, and taking both my hands in his, a look upon his face of utmost distress, pleaded, “Have I misread you? Liam, tell me this pleases you?”
I threw my arms about his neck, sobbing my happy tears onto the stars on his high collar. “Yes. Oh, yes, it pleases me, General Stuart, sir.” He held me tightly, stroked my hair. I found my voice. “Sir?”
“Yes, my boy.”
“Sir, would you do something for me?”
“Anything, my boy, anything in the whole wide world. It is, after all, your sixteenth birthday, and I kind of think that a boy who must celebrate his sixteenth birthday in the midst of a war ought to have whatever he wants as a present. Ask and it is yours. What is it you want?”
“Would you give me a birthday kiss, sir?”
He caught me roughly by the back of the neck, pulled my face forward and upward to meet his, gazed for a long moment into my eyes, smiled that ironic smile of his that I loved, and then, looking down into the desire that I knew must be shimmering in my eyes, he leaned slowly forward and with infinite gentleness and affection, placed a fatherly kiss squarely in the center of my forehead.
Then, without a thought to anything so mundane as gender or rank, without a single solitary thought of any kind, with a feeling rising within me over which I no longer held rein, I seized in my fists the long brown locks which framed his handsome countenance and I pulled him toward me and kissed him with all the passion incumbent upon a young man in the first kiss he takes for himself. And in that moment, kneeling in the grass in the warmth of that summer forest, before the man I adored, my fingers entwined in that hair, I understood. I understood everything....