With water still pooled in his boots, Henry watched Tabitha walk away, a thick blanket wrapped around her and dragging at her feet. When she turned before entering the house, wide eyes peered over the top of the wool, trained on him until the door shut.
He should move, warm himself up, do something, but his feet would not respond. His whole body teamed up in a mad rebellion against function. Stopped, at his sudden realization that Tabitha, his dear playmate–for all he knew until now–the pesky younger sister to his best friends, was in fact, the loveliest woman he had ever seen.
His brain puzzled, How have I not noticed such a thing before?
And he had felt things in the river. Deep protection and honest attraction for a woman he thought of yesterday, as a sister. At a complete loss, he mused. How could a man spend most of his life with a person and not know things about them? Like, for example, her eyes–they were so blue–brilliant, sparkling, sapphire blue! His favorite color for eyes.
His lips spread in a smile that hurt his cheeks.
They had the most intriguing conversation together. And the most fun besides.
She had the best family… His smile fell.
A pit grew in his stomach, and he swallowed.
He could not continue thinking of Tabitha as a stunning woman. They would dust off their pistols if they heard his thoughts.
“What are you standing here, staring at the door for?” Oscar rested a hand on his shoulder. “Your brain addled?” He grinned, but Henry saw the spark of sincerity in his eyes.
These men were like brothers to him. He couldn’t be thinking of their sister as anything other than a sister. Was he not here at this party to protect her?
“No, my brain’s not addled, though I did rattle things inside when I smacked up against a rock.”
Oscar’s concerned expression deepened. “We could call the doctor.”
He shook his head and then winced in pain. “No, I will be fine, though a hot bath would be just the thing.”
Oscar gestured to the maid.
She curtseyed, “I’ll let the kitchen know right away.”
Edward gripped his shoulder. “Thank you man. Mother would have been devastated. All of us…” His words caught. Then he cleared his throat, louder, he said, “Glad we were all there together.”
The others nodded.
Edward leaned closer, “Otherwise you’d be leg-shackled to our sister, and I, none too pleased about it.” His eyes held a protective glint Henry had never seen aimed in his direction before.
Hopefully most would assume the other brothers were present for her fall. He would feel dreadful if he had done anything at all to harm her reputation. Or see her hurt in any way. Watching her go over the fence, for a sickening few seconds, he had thought her lost. Henry shuddered again, thinking of it.
Of course he cared for her, but his desperation to see her well surprised him. As if his own future happiness in the world depended on her well being.
What if he lost Tabby? He closed his eyes. The bleak darkness that filled him at the thought told him everything he needed to know about his feelings for Miss Tabitha Easton.
And he had seen the same desperation in her eyes and heard it in her voice when they were pressed against the rock.
“I don’t know what I would have done,” she’d said, before she corrected herself.
Could she care for him? Or was he just like a brother in her eyes, like he had always assumed himself to be?
But what was he to do? Just the thought of telling Edward made him cringe. And perhaps his brain was truly addled and when he awoke, Tabitha would go back to being his safe friendly tabby cat, and the world would return to normal.
Later in the afternoon, after tea, Henry settled at his writing desk for some important correspondence, but he couldn’t focus.
His purpose in attending the house party was two-fold. When the Eastons had needed additional assistance chaperoning Tabby, he was relieved because the request validated his presence at the party. Who would believe he was here merely to hunt for a wife? Up to this point, he had shown little interest.
He paused. And for the hundredth time, his mind drifted to Tabitha’s smile. Now that she had become so much more interesting… He paused. Had his purposes changed? Had his feelings for her altered so drastically?
Perhaps. And he smiled as he pondered the possible outcome of an alliance with the Easton family. With Tabitha. Would not her brothers be relieved? He winced. Quite possibly not, especially as they trusted him to be a chaperone, a guardian of sorts, not to entertain designs on their sister. Also–he winced again–they knew him too well and were aware of his political dealings, his work for reform. It did not paint him in the best light among members of the stodgy, Tory ton. And his efforts put him at risk. What kind of husband could he be as a Whig in a house full of Tories?
Lord Timothy Felling, future Duke of Newhaven, had asked particularly that he come to this house party. As a sentry, passing on information to other Whigs, he was happy to be of service. He could not think of a better cause in England, a more important pursuit. Broadening representation and suffrage to all of England’s citizens was necessary for the future of his country. Pleased with the party’s goals, Lord Henry had been more than willing to assist. But all assistance was accomplished in the deepest secrecy, because of the great majority of Tories in the House of Lords at the moment. Whig philosophies were unpopular. After carefully writing all of the instructions from Lord Felling on a piece of parchment, he stood in the statuary hall, as if admiring the artwork. Movement caught his eye. The footman left the armory, at the other side of the hall. His eyes travelled the area around him and Henry stepped behind the statue to his front. When he peered back, the footman slipped out the other direction, again looking about as if hiding something.
Henry counted statues. Just as described, there was a crack where the marble met the stone, and his parchment slid inside undetected. Something was afoot with a rally they had planned and it made him nervous. The Prime Minister was trigger hungry about any possible uprising in the poor. All gatherings, no matter the purpose, put Lord Liverpool on guard. Hopefully the Whigs knew what they were doing in inciting the working classes like that.
“Tabitha, ah, Miss Easton.” She wore green, and her blue eyes sparkled up at him. They were just the color of the the flowers on the lane at home, he decided, and then felt ridiculous for the direction of his thoughts. Flowers? Get ahold of yourself. Be charming, Gallant. Make her laugh.
She widened her eyes.
He had not yet responded.
Then she tilted her head and opened her mouth to say something just as he bowed and said, “How are you this afternoon?”
He felt a bumbling fool.
She wrinkled her eyes in question then curtseyed. “Just fine, and you?”
He could have smacked his own head. What did he mean, bowing to Tabitha? And here, where no one else was watching. They hadn’t bowed to each other since their governesses taught them how and they were required to practice.
He cleared his throat. “I’m well. Just um, exploring the hall.”
“Is there something interesting at the base of that statue?” She eyed him and tilted her head to the side. “I saw you studying it.”
He swallowed. “What? Oh um, no. Just wondered at the artist. But there’s no plaque.” He scanned the area for any sort of distraction. “But there! Have you seen the armory?” Then he leaned closer. “More fencing lessons perhaps? We could go out early in the morning when no one is about?”
Her eyes widened and she searched his face. “Yes!” Then she colored and looked at the floor, “I am overly excited. It’s just, nothing has seemed normal since arriving here. Everyone is behaving in such an untoward manner, and…”
Juli came running up, out of breath. “Oh! There you are. Good show, Henry. You’ve discovered her.”
She bristled and stepped back.
But Henry held up his hands. “I was here before you. Not following you around.”
“Edward wants a family meeting before the musicale tonight.”
Henry watched them leave, Tabitha looking back over her shoulder.
She was now a part of all his thoughts, his memories, the very breath he breathed. All of life seemed pointed to her. As enticing as Tabitha had become, he could not decide if the new feelings were welcome. They disturbed his peace, upset his heart rate even. Henry swallowed. And made it dashed difficult to think of anything besides Tabitha.
Welcome or not, he could not seem to control the direction of his thoughts.
After an agitated afternoon and an even more frustrating dinner when he sat nowhere near Tabitha, he made his way to what Miss Greystock called, the grand drawing room. In his wanderings about the house to clear his mind, he had stumbled upon the music room from earlier, where he and Edward had at last found Tabitha, alone with a servant.
As a result, now a disturbing thought jabbed at him. That nauseating, cozy scene at the piano bench—Tabitha and the footman, harmonizing, smiling. A distinct tightness ran up his middle and settled at the back of his throat. She had seemed affected by him, servant or no. Henry had changed the subject to save her embarrassment, but he saw it in the way she leaned, the tilt of her head, the lowering of her shoulders. Even though he knew his thoughts to be ridiculous, hot, fiery jealousy clamped onto him and twisted in an angry knot.
As he approached the door, the very focus of his intense burst of emotion stood at the entry with a haughty expression.
Henry blinked and looked closer. The man’s face had become blank, as most footmen appeared. Had he imagined his earlier look of contempt? He eyed him with suspicion, but the footman never looked in his direction.
Now, to arrange things so that he sat next to Tabitha.
He positioned himself near the door so he could enter the room with her. But he wasn’t paying attention and moved into the path of Miss Winters who startled and lifted her chin as though it were his fault.
He bowed and moved aside. “I’m terribly sorry.”
Her eyes sparkled with irritation, but she nodded and continued past without another word.
At long last the tops of two blonde heads ducked and bowed together, and he knew one to be Tabitha. The other, likely the pretty Anne Townshend. He smiled to himself. He had not seen a more likely pair to be friends.
When they approached, he bowed and reached for Tabitha’s hand. “Miss Easton. Miss Anne. You look lovely this evening.”
The color rose in Tabby’s cheeks. And he hoped the embarrassment of their falling in the river did not concern her unduly.
Miss Anne smiled, “Hello Lord Courteney.” She curtseyed. “Have you seen Mr. Easton? Tauney Easton?” She scanned the room and returned large and questioning eyes to Henry.
He grinned. “No I have not. But he promised to be here.”
The two ladies shared a smile.
He lifted his elbow to escort Tabitha, but, while she rested a hand on his arm, she didn’t meet his eyes. He placed a hand over her own, and the pink in her cheeks spread. A new awareness tingled through his palm and into his arm where her delicate fingers rested. He wished never again to lose her attention. Henry led her to sit beside Miss Anne, pleased she sat close, her gentle pressure on his forearm remaining. Letting out a long breath of victory, he settled back in happy anticipation.
“You seem quite satisfied with yourself.” Tabitha arched one brow.
“I do? Well, I am. You know how I enjoy music.” As the first guest began to sing, he leaned closer and whispered, “Especially with someone as lovely as you beside me.” He paused. He had never flirted with Tabitha before and his weak attempt felt terribly wrong.
She tilted her head and stared at him in suspicion. “What is this? Did Edward put you up to this?”
Edward? What would he have to do with this? “Put me up to what?”
She waved her hand over him. “This…accompanying me…hovering.” Her eyes narrowed. “Can I not just enjoy a musicale without a guardian?”
The exasperation in her tone made him wince. Before he could say another word, the next performance began.
Uncomfortable, unable to clarify he was not sitting beside her to play nursemaid, the frustration inside him grew.
And what’s more, she paid him little attention. She had reclaimed her hand, leaving his forearm cold. Focused on Miss Anne, she spoke in low whispers.
Miss Jesa Standish stood next. And he was pleased she would perform one of his favorite pieces. He leaned back in his chair as the opening notes on the piano flowed through his mind, washing over him in a great calm. Everything would work out. He would figure out his new feelings for Tabitha—
Jarring, discordant, Miss Standish’s first notes hit him like a splash of cold water. Had she no concept of how to sing? He cringed. Or rhythm? He studied her face. No. She did not know how terrible she sounded. He schooled his features. Others in the room tried to hide their pained expressions, but some were openly appalled that she would be allowed to sing. He met Tabitha’s eye, and her compassion for Miss Standish warmed him.
Miss Winters hurried to begin soon after and the room settled into a relieved cheeriness, which continued as Miss Fairchild reluctantly followed.
When Tabitha stood to sing, Henry joined to turn pages for her.
She played and sang as she usually did while practicing at home: flawless, beautiful, and full of emotion. But he had never been moved by her performance as he was now. Watching the puckered concentration on her lip, the slight wrinkle around her eyes, he was enchanted. The music weaved its way through him, and he almost neglected to turn a page. Her lovely trilling notes soothed all his worries.
Until he heard a soft humming. It would have been a beautiful addition, a perfect harmony to the notes Tabitha sang, except that he knew from whom the low accompaniment came.
And Tabitha did also. Her eyes had become glued to the footman, and they shone with appreciation. He stood, on the other side of the piano, at the wall, his face blank, his eyes, unseeing, but his humming carried over to them.
Henry doubted anyone else heard, but the reaction in Tabitha was unmistakable, and Henry felt a simmering protection brew inside. They finished the song, the footman humming in harmony with her, their notes blending in an exquisite perfection that made Henry ill.
The room erupted in applause. The Countess said, “How refreshing to hear such a natural, pretty voice.”
Miss Townshend and Miss Anne stood. And he had never felt more grateful for a new piece to commence. He and Tabitha left the piano bench together, Tabitha still watching the wretched footman as though he knew the secrets of her heart. Perhaps he did. Another ball of fiery jealousy churned inside.
Even with the intensity from the river likely still fresh in her mind, Tabitha didn’t appear to be any more interested in him today than she was yesterday or any other day before that.
Blast his new attraction.
He checked his timepiece as if it had the answers. Eleven days of houseparty remaining. Even if all she saw when she looked at him was that pesky little twelve year old who used to carry around frogs, he would do his best to convince her otherwise.