In our past chapter of Tabitha’s Folly, their waltz ends in an almost confession which quickly morphs into misunderstanding.
A waltz with Tabby. He didn’t know the waltz could be so special. Her trusting eyes, their deep blue igniting his protective instincts as he guided her across the floor.
He could see Tabitha’s upturned face in his memory, leaning into his hand at her cheek. He had thought for a moment she was developing feelings for him.
Then the familiar ache of the previous evening returned, and he grimaced before he could stop himself.
“I don’t really know what to say.”
When he asked if she shared his feelings, when he waited, she never responded to his question. Even when Edward asked her, when she could have made everything less awkward, she had paused.
Blast and dragons. He could not be sure. And what if he went about declaring himself too early and disturbing the lovely chance he had to win her over slowly.
The carriage dipped into a rut. Lady Walters giggled and fell against him.
His smile stretched unnaturally across his face.
The carriage lurched to a stop at last, and he handed down Lady Walters and Lady Summers, Lord Felling’s two charges on his trip to the lakes district.
“Oh look at this quaint little town.” Lady Walters jarred him back to the irritating present, and she reached over to place a hand on his arm to get his attention; but then she continued pressing into his forearm with her fingers, as if he would forget her presence otherwise.
His frustration grew.
Miss Greystock, curse the woman, had arranged for Tabitha to ride with Sir James in the other carriage on their way to town. They were to tour the village.
Lord Felling had pleaded with him to escort the two ladies into town. He had his own purposes at the party and needed to dislodge their constant grasping for attention. However, it now appeared some of the ladies’ raptures for Felling had transferred over to Henry.
Their silly fluttering of eyelashes every time he looked in their direction was the exact reason he avoided most social activities where young debutantes were present.
Lady Summers pouted. “I don’t know. It seems primitive. Do you have any shops of interest here?” She placed her hand on his other arm. And she tried to share a conspiratorial glance with him, but he couldn’t muster the energy.
He felt a desire to defend the place. “It was lovely Sunday last when we attended church. I do believe there’s a tea shop and a baker as well as milliner and other things you ladies enjoy.”
“Oh we must try the bakery. I do love a delicious tart.” She leaned into him when he did not turn his attention her way. “Though I don’t know if any compare to the cook at Somerstone.”
“Did you try the tarts at breakfast? I’ve never had one melt on my tongue like that…” Lady Walters tugged on him at his other side.
One woman on each arm, and he was already fatigued.
They continued in their raptures about everything, turning their nose up or falling in love with one thing at a time that had happened to them since they arrived.
Henry settled in for a long outing.
But he must separate for a time to meet with Felling and some others at the pub. As instructed, he had replaced the note at the base of the statue with a new one. Preparations for a rally were underway, one of enormous magnitude, in Manchester. Getting word out to tell people to gather was of paramount importance. Each of the contacts must be reached and begin work immediately. They wanted every team present at the rally, every area of England represented. He hoped for numbers in the thousands.
“You look so uneasy. Relax, Lord Courteney.” Lady Walter’s voice grated. “Although.” She lifted her chin. “I don’t see much with which to be enamored if you want my opinion. The guests at this house party are likely the most genteel and respectable people this little town has ever seen.”
He gritted his teeth. “Perhaps.”
Tabitha stood with Sir James and tried not to see Henry exit his carriage with two ladies, one on each arm. Tabitha recognized them. Both highly sought after, both lovely and titled–and determined to gain his attention.
Henry smiled, laughed at their jokes and escorted them cheerfully enough.
And a sick feeling began in her stomach that started to spread.
Sir James cleared his throat.
Tabitha whipped back around. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I did not hear what you just said.”
His eyes held kindness, and he tipped his head to indicate the threesome. “A man does not enjoy that kind of attention for long.”
Her eyes widened in embarrassment that her feelings were so obvious.
“In fact, I’d wager he is gritting his teeth in frustration as we speak.”
She paused, wondering how much of her personal feelings to disclose to a stranger, feelings she had never voice out loud to anyone.
Miss Anne stepped up at that moment and linked her arm with Tabitha’s.
“Hello Miss Easton, Sir James. And how is your tour of the town?”
Tabitha filled with a desire to share her inmost thoughts with another. “It is lovely. Sir James is as polite and attentive as ever.” Without planning to, her eyes travelled to Henry again. “And others seem to be enjoying themselves as well.” The ladies were laughing at him again and just entering the tea shop.
Anne followed her gaze and squeezed her arm. “Perhaps we shall pay a visit to the milliner?”
Sir James bowed. “If you will excuse me, I will allow you ladies to discuss ribbons and lace with abandon and not worry about my male sensibilities.” He winked, and Tabitha felt gratitude anew for his friendship. He had already turned from them, seeking out something of interest on the opposite side of the street.
“I am so glad to see you!” Tabitha couldn’t keep the relief out of her voice.
“And I you.” They walked arm in arm down the sidewalk the few doors it took to reach the milliners. “How are things in your pursuit of Lord Courteney?”
Tabitha groaned. “Am I that obvious? I feel even Sir James knows my secret.”
“You are not terribly obvious, no. But it does seem easy for all but those who are closest to you to perceive your tendre.”
She sucked in a breath and then whispered, “I almost told him. And Edward as well, all at once.” Her heart stuttered at the thought.
“At the dance? I saw you leave out on the veranda and Edward was soon to follow.”
She felt her face heat. “Yes. We had stopped dancing. He held me close.” She couldn’t believe she was saying the words aloud. “And he asked me how I felt about him.” She paused, still confused about the whole conversation. “I think that was what he was trying to ask me.”
Miss Anne squealed as they entered the shop, and the attendant startled.
“Oh, beg pardon.” She curtseyed and then looked at Tabitha, and they both giggled.
When they had found their way to the corner dispalying new kid gloves, Miss Anne asked, “Well, what did you tell him?”
“I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t very well explain to Edward and Henry my feelings. I felt so bare. I must know if he feels the same before I say anything.” She swallowed as her certainty grew. “He must be the first, otherwise how can I know he will ever take me seriously?”
Miss Anne didn’t answer.
“What? Is that not a wise plan?”
“But what if he is waiting for some kind of signal from you?”
“Signal. What do you mean?”
“Well, a sign, anything, some sort of indication of your feelings.” After thinking for a moment, she said, “Something obvious will likely be required.”
Tabitha thought about this for a moment. And then shook her head. “I don’t dare.”
Her attention was distracted as she watched out the front window to the shop. “Isn’t that?”
Miss Anne turned, “What?” The back of a footman’s livery passed around the corner.
“Let’s follow.” They left the shop in a hurry, Miss Anne obviously confused but following.
The footman turned a corner up ahead. “Oh, let’s hurry!” Tabitha walked nearly to a run.
Anne, breathless, called, “Why are we following this footman?”
“Because he is up to something. I just know it.”
Henry rounded a corner near them and she fell back against the wall, out of sight. “It’s Henry.”
Miss Anne’s eyes opened wide. “Why are we hiding?”
Tabitha thought for a moment. “I don’t know.” Then she peered around the corner again.
Henry looked in all directions then took the same alley as the footman. Her eyes narrowed. “He’s up to something as well.”
They rushed to the alleyway and hurried to the door that was almost closed. The only movement in sight, Henry had to have gone inside.
Then a little girl with dark chocolate curls and a frilly pink dress came running out of a blue door on the opposite side of the alley. Laughter followed, a melodious voice Tabitha recognized, and the footman himself joined them. He stopped short, meeting her eyes with a full smile in return. He seemed so relaxed, happy, then he replaced some of his candor with the emotional guard of his footman mask. For that is what she had come to think of it. He bowed, “Miss Easton, Miss Anne.”
They nodded. Anne said, “Damen.”
Tabitha turned in surprise. “His name is Damen?” Then she felt her face heat. “Your name is Damen?”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” His eyes teased her.
She almost grunted but instead turned to Anne, “And you know his name?”
Her eyes widened and then she said, “I thought everyone knew it. Miss Fairchild is the one who told me.”
The little girl came forward and reached for his hand. And both ladies must have showed their suspicions plainly for he quickly explained. “This is my friend, my cousin, of sorts.”
They nodded as if that cleared up everything. And then a moment of awkwardness lowered over their group.
The door opened behind them and voices interrupted. Henry stepped out into the alleyway, followed by Lord Felling and several men Tabitha had never seen before. As soon as they noticed their group, they stopped in surprise, cutting conversation immediately and all eyed Damen in great suspicion.
Henry stepped forward, “Weren’t you inside the pub just now?”
How strange he would not even address her or Miss Anne. What was going on with Henry?
Damen’s eyes flitted over the group and she almost saw a look of great arrogance cross his features but she must have been mistaken for now he looked very much the servant as he said, “I did go in for a bit of ale, right before I paid a visit to my favorite lady.”
“How dare you be so informal around them?” Henry’s towering form seemed to rise even higher as his frown deepened.
Then Damen arched a brow and indicated the small bit of pink frill at his side, but Henry reacted to his words only and bristled.
“Henry! Really.” Tabitha could not understand his great animosity. “This is Damen’s cousin…” She turned to the little lady. “I do apologize little one but I did not catch your name.”
She giggled, “She sounds so proper, even talking to me.” Then she curtseyed. “I’m Annabella.”
“Lovely to meet you.” When she turned ot Henry, instead of the softening of eyes she expected to see, he was glaring at Damen in suspicion. “Did you happen to hear what we were about in there?”
Lord Felling stepped forward. “Damen, is it? Your little cousin is lovely. I’m Lord Timothy Felling.” He held out his hand.
Damen stared at it in hesitation and Tabitha hoped he would not ignore the introduction as he had when he met Henry at the piano. Then his shoulders relaxed and he reached forward his hand. “I hear you will be staying with the Countess for a couple nights.”
He nodded. “I will. I wonder if we might have a word?”
Henry frowned. “Are you sure this is wise?”
Lord Felling nodded. “Absolutely. I would guess this man could be a great benefit.”
Tabitha watched each in great confusion. She shared a look with Miss Anne who shrugged.
Lord Felling extended his arm behind Damen’s back to direct him back to the pub. He stiffened and shrugged off his hand, but kept walking. They entered the pub together.
Henry stood watching the closed door, scowling. Tabitha didn’t even think he knew she was standing beside him. Annabella curtseyed and said, “Pleased to meet you.” Before running back to the blue door and entering.
As Tabitha turned to Miss Anne, Henry at last said, “I wondered if you two might like to accompany me to the tea room?”
Tabitha nodded and they each took one of Henry’s arms. An unsettled feeling continued. Henry had never seemed so unreasonably accusing.
But when they arrive at the tearoom, he smiled his largest grin, held the door and indicated they enter first. Tabitha allowed some of her tension to melt away. The room was cheery and smelled of tea, coffee and a sugary sharp anise. He held out a chair for her to sit and then Miss Anne. He ordered her tea with two sugars and extra cream and her favorite blackberry tarts before turning to Miss Anne to ask what she would like.
When they sat at a cozy table in the back, and once all their orders had been served, he said, “Now, what are the two loveliest women at the houseparty doing without an escort?”
They glanced at each other. Tabitha wasn’t certain how it had come about. But before they could respond, he said, “I shall not complain for I am to benefit.” He sipped his own tea and the warmth in his eyes put Tabitha further at ease.
Then he leaned back in his chair and said, “Miss Anne. I bet I could reveal some surprises about our Miss Tabitha here.”
She laughed, eyeing them both. “I am sure you can and I long to hear them.”
“First of all.”
Tabitha laughed because he leaned back in his chair with a self satisfied grin.
“She is a terrible chess player.”
“That’s all you will reveal?” Anne feigned disappointment.
“I’m only getting started. She is also abysmal at Whist.”
Tabitha scoffed. “Now that is untrue.”
“I have a waltz to prove it.” His eyes sparkled.
She felt her face heat. Their shared gaze did not break for many moments, his expression full of sincerity. Her hope rose again.
He took a bite of his biscuit. “But, she is the veritable queen, the expert among all the Eastons.” He swallowed and sipped his tea.
Miss Anne laughed. “At what?”
“Yes, we are all aflutter with expectation.” Tabitha’s unease all but gone, she thrilled at his good humor.
“She is the undisputed champion… at catching frogs.”
She choked on her tea as she laughed.
“And climbing trees.”
Anne lifted her cup in a mock salute. “Those are two enviable talents indeed.”
As their conversation continued, and Henry’s playful banter, Tabitha almost forgot his mysterious behavior of a few moments before and that of the footman. But she knew some intrigue pestered and bothered the men, and she determined to discover what it could be.
- Forty-Two: Distrust all Around
- Thirty-Eight: Up to Something
- Thirty-One: Whist and Wagers
- Twenty-Seven: Midnight Meetings and Stained Glass
- Twenty-Two: A Choice in the Dark
- Eighteen: Blast his New Attraction
- Eleven: Awash in the River
- Seven: A Delicious Distraction is Afoot
- Five: Shocking Proposition
- In the Quiet Before Delicious Mayhem Begins