Thirty-nine: Gingerbread Hopes

Previously in The Unwanted Suitor: Miss Greystock was mortified when Sir James deliberately threw a game a whist in order lose a wager and win a waltz with her. But when she escaped from the treacherous waters of the drawing room, she found herself drawn into more treacherous waters still—and being kissed in the shadows.

Sir James had not been the least surprised when Cornelia palmed him off on Miss Easton again for the ride into town. He had been extremely curious to know how she would react the first time she saw him again after their kiss the evening before. Sure he had wanted glowing eyes and a welcoming smile but had not expected it.

As it turned out, he was quite right. When he had joined the party gathering in the pillared hall for a jaunt into the neighboring village, he’d found Cornelia organizing the groups into carriages. Her cheeks had grown rosy, but she refused to look his way again.

“Sir James,” she said, “If you would give Miss Easton your arm, you may join her in the first carriage.”

Sir James smiled at Miss Easton and bowed. “It would be my pleasure.” But before he left, he asked in a teasing voice, “Are you joining us in the village, Miss Greystock?”

“I will be following soon, as I have some errands for the Countess.”

“Why don’t you ride with us? I’m sure Miss Easton wouldn’t mind letting you squeeze in between us.” The thought of riding into town with Cornelia pressed against his side flashed through his mind. It was too bad she would no doubt reject his suggestion.

“I won’t make you uncomfortable,” Cornelia said, still not quite looking at him. “Damen will drive me to town in the gig. But thank you for your offer.”

Thinking about the scene he’d witnessed between them the evening before, a dart of concern shot through him. He leaned closer and murmured. “Are you comfortable with that arrangement?”

At last, she met his eyes, hers steady and reassuring. “Yes, Sir James. All is well.”

He wanted to stay and ask more questions, but Miss Easton waited by the door, smiling at the two of them as if amused. He bowed and left her, though he hated to do so.

Once they arrived in town, Sir James soon parted ways with Miss Easton when she was joined by Miss Anne. He never minded being in Miss Easton’s company, since she was a lively, easy-going girl. Not to mention, he knew her marriage aspirations were trained in another direction altogether, so there was no fear of her developing a tendré for him.

As he strolled down the narrow road, he found the pub, ordered a tankard of home-brewed, and waited outside for Cornelia to arrive in town. He watched with interest as the villagers went about their business and enjoyed the warmth of the sunshine on his head and the excellent refreshment. Really, he should visit the pub more often.

He had just set his empty tankard down on the bench beside him when he saw Cornelia coming down the road. He smiled, bowing and doffing his hat as they passed by. He knew she saw him, though she did not acknowledge him as they drove past.

Chuckling, Sir James followed lazily behind them. He had come to the village this morning for amusement’s sake only. Considering the way Cornelia was treating him, it looked as if it would be entertaining indeed.

As Damen pulled the gig up at a stable a short way down the street and jumped down, Sir James was there before him to help Cornelia down. She hesitated a moment but gave in.

“I suppose I should have known better than to expect you to leave me in peace this morning,” she said, bracing her hands on his shoulders.

He put his hands around her waist and lowered her to the ground, careful that she didn’t land on the pile of horse manure nearby. “You should have indeed.”

She huffed a little but made no further comment. “Damen, I will meet you here again at noon.”

“Yes, miss. I will be ready.”

Cornelia turned then and walked briskly down the road. Sir James smiled as he walked beside her, wondering how she would try to put him off.

“I must first go to the butcher,” she said.

“Excellent. I admit, I have rarely been in a butcher’s shop but I suppose I will survive the experience unscathed. After all, loads of people do so.”

“I also need to return books to the lending library and buy supplies for the still room at the chemist.”

“Behold me still undaunted.”

She stopped and turned to him then. “Sir James, you cannot follow me about all morning. What will people think?”

“Probably that I take a great interest in you…perhaps even that I am courting you. And since they will be right, I see no reason for us to worry about it.”

She sputtered a moment. “Courting me? But you can’t.”

He wanted nothing more than to take her hand, or better yet, hold her in his arms. But he knew very well he could not do so on a public street. “What did you think I was about last night, Cornelia? A bit of fun? A selfish flirtation with dishonorable intentions?”

“No, not that. Never that. But this is not a proper time or place for such things. Everyone would think I was throwing my cap at you. My position as Lady Du’Breven’s companion makes it intolerable for me to accept the attentions of any gentleman. None of the guests know my family or connections. They likely think me a poor relation and would thus consider any interaction between us to mean I was a desperate, grasping sort of female.”

He nodded, much struck by her words. “When it is I who am desperate and grasping.”

“What do you mean?” But before he could answer, she looked around. “We are attracting attention standing in the road like this.”

She turned from him and began walking again. In two quick strides, he had caught up to her. “Very well. No more for now, but we will continue this conversation before we return to Somerstone.”

She did not respond as she entered a store with several bird carcasses hanging in its front window.

For the rest of the afternoon, he followed in her wake, carrying her packages and offering his advice frequently though she never requested it. He found way too much amusement in suggesting she choose “The Tears of Amelia” at the book lender and cherry red ribbons for Lady Du’Breven’s mobcap. But when he suggested they stop at the bakery for gingerbread, she finally agreed to one of his suggestions instead of casting a fulminating glare his direction.

With the still-warm gingerbread wrapped in paper, they stepped out of the bakery. “Let’s find somewhere to leave these packages so we can enjoy our treat,” he said.

“I’m sure they will hold them for me at the stable where Damen left the gig. Let’s hurry. I’m famished,” Cornelia said, smiling at him for the first time.

“I am not surprised. Working so hard to be angry at me when you aren’t really must be tiring.”

She laughed then, the rich music of it flowing over him and making his pulse respond in a lively way. “I relent, Sir James. It is even more impossible to stay angry when you make me laugh.”

It didn’t take long to return to the stables in such a small town. When they left their packages with the stablemaster, Cornelia left a note for Damen, telling him to start back to Somerstone and pick them up along the way.

“That way we can take our walk along the road. It will be a tight fit in the gig for three, but we can make Damen ride in the back,” she said, flashing a smile as they left the stable.

Sir James laughed and offered her his arm. When she took it, he placed his hand on top of hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I am not sure we should give Damen a reason to revenge himself upon us. Did he guess what we were about in the shadows last night?”

“To be sure he did, but he assured me that he wished us well. And though I was terrified at having our names bandied about, I don’t think he will.”

“Unless we make him ride in the back of the gig. But I for one would not mind if he told the world. If you were compromised you wouldn’t be able to deny me any longer. Hmmm… that is a good idea. I must ponder on it.”

“No, Sir James! Really, you must not. I would be so mortified.”

He flashed a smile down at her and offered her a piece of gingerbread. “Believe me, my dear, if I were to compromise you, the last thing you would feel is mortification.”

He watched as her cheeks bloomed with color. “Do not tease me, Sir James. I determined last night that I must speak to you on this subject. It was, as you must understand, something that I hesitated to do since it would seem very forward of me.”

“You find me all agog to hear what you have to say, Cornelia. Are you, perhaps, about to propose to me?”

She gasped and looked up at him. “I am not. In fact, quite the opposite. My purpose in speaking to you is to ask you to cease your…pursuit of me. I cannot deny that I am unaware of your purpose—”

“Yes. I hoped the attention I paid your very charming lips last night would suffice to accomplish that. You aren’t eating your gingerbread.”

She scowled and took a small bite. “Yes, but it is still difficult to be frank on such a subject. However, I was determined that you should understand my position.”

Sir James waited in amusement as she struggled to continue. “Believe me, my darling—I understand your position very well. It irks me greatly and I long to remove you from it.”

“But the timing is all so impossible. Perhaps, after the house party is over.”

He glanced down at her, surprised. “Will you be giving notice to the Countess then, and returning home?”

“No. Perhaps. Oh, no I couldn’t. How could I leave the Countess in a lurch like that?”

“And how can I court you if I am in Buxton and you are here?”

He felt her fingers tremble in his hand then. “I am not even sure I wish you to court me, Sir James. I still do not understand why you should wish to do so, or why if you do, did you propose to me so horribly before.” Her tone grew louder as she spoke, more anxious—as if she were truly rattled now. “Not to mention, Sir James, that you disgraced me by sending your brother away to Bath and marrying him off to that heiress. The whole town knew that we were courting. I will never be able to hold my head up there again.”

“I suppose marrying the wealthier, more respectable, titled elder brother would go a long way towards remedying that.”

She let go of his arm then and turned to face him like a vengeful goddess. “You will not propose to me on the road. And not while I am telling you most plainly not to pursue me any longer.”

He grasped her shoulder and gave her a gentle shake. “Certainly not, Cornelia. I already told you that I would not propose to you until I was certain of your response. You have certainly made it very clear that I have a greater task before me than I even knew.”

She stomped her foot. “I am trying to make it clear that it is impossible and that it will do nothing but harm for you to make me the object of your attention at this house party.”

Sir James clenched his jaw in vexation. “If I believed for one minute that you did not care for me, or that you would be happier here left alone, I would go away and never bother you again. But you are not happy here, and you do care for me.” When she would have spoken, he hurried to say, “Oh, perhaps you are not in love with me, but you are not indifferent to me. Even if you will not admit it to yourself. You must trust me not to do anything that would hurt you or your reputation in any way.”

“I do trust that you don’t intend to make people gossip about me, but they are.”

Sir James heard the sound of uneven wheels and a plodding horse coming toward them and turned in time to see Damen driving the gig around the bend. “Here, you must go. Just trust me, Cornelia. And try not to work yourself into too great a temper before we may speak again.”

As he spoke, Damen drew up even with them.

“But I am not done speaking with you,” she protested as he led her over to the gig. “You haven’t agreed to let me be.”

“Nor will I until I am convinced hope is lost. And after last night, that will be a very difficult thing to convince me of.” He took her by the waist then and lifted her up into the gig.

She took her seat, but looked down at him, “Are you not riding with us?”

“No. I will walk back.”

“But it must be three miles or more at least.”

“And hopefully by the time I have walked all that way, I will have mastered the very considerable frustration you have caused me. Off with you.”

He watched as the gig preceded up the road, with Cornelia looking back at him until a turn in the road blocked the view. He looked down at the gingerbread in his hand and shook his head. He clenched his fist around it, grinding it into crumbs, then scattered it for the birds to enjoy.

As he began walking, his temper easing slightly with each step, he racked his brain for what to do about his darling but obstinate ladylove. Coming up with nothing, he hoped the Countess would prove cleverer than he was.

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Michelle Pennington spends her days quoting movies with her husband, making messes faster than her four kids. Michelle writes Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Adult Romance, Fantasy, and Regency Romance. The genre might change, but her characters will always be falling in love. She loves to make magic by stringing words together, but she also creates designer sugar cookies, sings loud in church, and reads fiction like it’s her last day on earth. Michelle is an active contributor in the LDS and Clean Fiction writing communities. She is blessed to have the support of her family and amazing friends on this crazy journey, as well as the constant company of the characters who live in her imagination.

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