Last time in The Unwanted Suitor: Cornelia fell in the rain and discovered that she had also fallen for Sir James. The basket of fishheads she left under his bed became a threat to her newly admitted hopes, but retrieving them proved…scintillating.
Of all the ways one can be awakened from the blissful oblivion of sleep, the howling and hissing of Wellington battling the kitchen cat was not Sir James’ preference.
He laid in bed, listening to the ungodly sounds, and prayed they would stop. Whatever they were fighting over must be a prime treasure indeed. With a rush of impatience, Sir James strode to the window, opened the casement, and looked down. Two stories below, the cat stood his ground with an arched back while Wellington yipped and pounced back and forth in a manner that he no doubt thought ferocious. However, the cat’s swiping paw sent him whelping and retreating.
“In the name of all that’s holy,” Sir James muttered. He strode over to his wash basin and carried the pitcher of water to the window, then tipped it out onto the two animals. The cat spit and ran like demons were upon him. Wellington, unperturbed by the soaking, chased after him in high spirits, barking out the triumph of his victory, before turning back to whatever they’d been fighting over.
Sir James stared thoughtfully down, his mind finally awake enough to realize that Cornelia had been standing at the window when he’d found her in his room the evening before. He could be pardoned for not thinking much about it at the time since her wet gown had been plastered to her form, her cheeks flushed like fully bloomed roses, and her eyes sparkling with emotion.
She had been playing with a fire she knew little about when she’d entered his room, and his thoughts had chased about all night, like minnows in a pond, as he’d tried to determine why she’d come. He knew now that he would find the answer beneath his window.
Fortunately, his manservant came in then. After he’d retrieved more water for Sir James, the process of washing a dressing went quickly. In his buckskin breeches and topboots, Sir James ran down the back stairs. As he stepped out into the morning air, freshened with the scent of wet moss and blooming roses, he followed the outside wall until he judged himself to be under his bedroom window. There he found the tattered remains of two fish heads. No doubt there had once been more before the cat and Wellington had discovered the feast.
“That cunning little spitfire.” A smile played over his mouth. She’d been disengaging from a masterful prank. Why?
Mulling over this delightful new mystery, Sir James walked to the stables. With the help of a groom, his mount was soon saddled. He rode down the lane that wound around the borders of the Somerstone property. Birds swooped in the sky while the sun dried the damp earth, giving the promise of a halcyon day to come. He rode for an hour, barely noting the direction he went as his thoughts churned.
He could think of only one reason why Cornelia would have wanted to stop her prank, and the possibility that she had at last allowed herself to love him made him want to gallop back to the house and drag her into the nearest secluded corner he could find.
But no. He had rushed his fences the first time he’d proposed, and he’d meant it when he’d told her that he would not propose to her again until he was certain of her answer. For as a gentleman, he could not, in honor, continue to pursue her after she had rejected him twice. His whole life’s happiness, and hers as well, rode on how well he played his cards. He could not make a botch of this.
Anxious now, he returned to the stables, determined to seek out the Countess. As he returned to the house across the green lawn, he paused as he saw servants setting out a row of easels under Cornelia’s direction. His heart leaped at the unexpected sight of her.
“Good morning, my darling hoyden,” he said, approaching her from behind.
She turned, gasped, and glared at him. She motioned to the servants with her eyes. “Good afternoon, you mean.” Her voice was firm, but he heard the warmth in it. She could not hide it from him now.
Turning his eyes, with an effort, away from hers, he saw the sun was indeed at its highest point in the sky. “So it is. I have just returned from a long ride and must have lost track of time. I had such pleasant thoughts to occupy my mind, you see.”
“Yes. There is something so stirring about moonlit gardens and evening rainstorms… and fish heads beneath my window.” He smiled down at her, enjoying the way her cheeks infused with color. “I’ve been pondering the meaning of it all.”
She looked down, depriving him of the glow in her eyes. “And have you come to any conclusions during all this pondering?”
“I have indeed. I cannot wait till an appropriate occasion to discuss them with you.”
At last, she raised her eyes again, meeting his. He held her gaze, hoping she saw in his eyes the depths of his love for her. After a moment of sweet, breathless quiet between them, she said, “I admit I want to know your thoughts.”
He leaned closer, wishing he could tear off her bonnet and bury his nose in her silky hair. “One day soon, you will know them all. But for now, it is the Countess I need an audience with. Can you tell me where I may find her?”
“I…I believe she is in her private sitting room.”
“Thank you.” Sir James glanced at the servants and saw their attention carefully averted. Grasping her hand, he turned it over and he pulled back the fabric of her short glove, then pressed a kiss to the pulse beating at the inside of her wrist. He paused there, enthralled by the scent of her skin, knowing she must have placed a drop of her perfume on that very spot. When he spoke again, his voice was rough and difficult to manage. “Must you always make it so difficult to tear myself away from you?”
Releasing her hand, he strode away, but her voice called him back. “I believe the gentlemen intend to go fishing while the ladies paint. Will you be joining them?”
He smiled. “Of course. After all, we must ensure that the kitchen is well stocked with fish in case you get angry at me again.”
She pressed her lips together. “Which I most assuredly will.”
He laughed and resisted the urge to stay and tease her more. No doubt, he would never tire of watching her eyes spark at him. But if he was to have any hope of securing her, he needed to plot with his ally.
Just as Cornelia had said, he found the Countess in her private sitting room. When she bade him enter, he found her sitting in a gilded chair, supported by several cushions with a great quantity of shawls draped over her legs. She held a book in her hands but put this aside as he came forward. “Sir James. How kind of you to visit me. Will you ring for tea?”
Sir James went to the bell pull and tugged gently. When a footman came in and the tea was requested, Sir James returned to her side.
“Please, make yourself comfortable,” the Countess said. “To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”
“It is time to plan the final campaign.”
The Countess laughed. “Growing impatient?”
“More than impatient. If I could see my way clear to convincing her to accept my proposal this moment, nothing would stop me.”
“You still think she might refuse you?”
Sir James stood, feeling restless. He strode to the window. From this vantage point, he couldn’t quite see the spot where Cornelia was busy setting up the easels. A stab of disappointment shot through him. “I do not doubt she returns my feelings, but she many concerns that I fear may be an impediment.”
The Countess nodded her head. “She is in a difficult position, I know, and she feels it keenly. I wish I had been able to think of some way to invite her here as a guest, but I had no acquaintance with her that would make that allowable.”
Sir James tipped his head to the side. “Tell me, how did you come to ask her to be your companion?”
The Countess smiled. “Your mother is my goddaughter. Did you know?”
“I did not.”
“Well, after all, what use does a grown woman have for a godmother? Except that yours does. She knows I have a talent for making matches and she was very concerned about the muddle you two had made of your courtship.”
Sir James clenched his teeth. “Courtship? If only I had courted her. But no, I was too anxious to secure her after nearly losing her to my brother. In my arrogance, I thought she would accept me due to the social advantages of the match when she had few other prospects, tucked away in the country as she was. I had hoped she would marry me and that I could court her over time.”
“You were a great looby, weren’t you?”
He could not withhold a chuckle at her response. “Yes, the greatest. But I am a great deal wiser now. Wise enough to be very sure before I take another step. She does not want our courtship to become a matter of speculation, and nor do I—for her sake. I want to take her home to Buxton where we may be free of all these concerns with status and cruel gossip. But how do I convince her to leave you? A once that is accomplished, how do I get her there in a respectable fashion? I cannot travel with her, but nor do I want her to go alone.”
“You are overlooking the very simplest solution of all. As your wife, her social status would be assured and you could travel anywhere you desire—and take as long getting there as you want. There might still be speculation, but of a mostly positive nature and I think she would not then care for the opinion of a few spiteful people.”
His wife. Sir James’ mind held onto the thought, fixated on the joys of such a blessing. “Do you mean that I should marry her here? Now?”
“Certainly sir. The sooner you leave to acquire a special license, the sooner we may arrange your happy ending.”