In the last episode of Tabitha’s Folly…
Her wide eyes blinked, so close. Her lips, soft, spoke of his dearest desire. The sincerity in her expression became his undoing. He put his arm around her back, all the while searching her face. Her eyes darkened; they filled with desire. His own ignited. He tilted his head, his lips yearning for the softness of her own. When he was close enough to feel her breath on his mouth, Edward coughed. “Surely not, Henry.”
Henry reached for Tabitha’s hand as they ran through the back gardens of Somerstone, his breathing short, heart racing at the exertion. Tabitha’s maid waited for them at the entrance to the hedge maze. They headed in multiple directions, being seen by many of the household staff in different locations to confuse any who would want to follow. They paused, nodded to a gardiner, and pretended to admire the roses. Then they took off at another run.
Henry’s warm, protective care over Tabitha grew as her small fingers squeezed his own. Her smile of exhilaration spurred him on. At length, they arrived in the maze, nodded to her maid who followed at a respectable pace, and they slowed their steps.
Tabitha’s face pink, she looked all about her. “Oh, but this is fun! A bit like all those games of hide and seek, isn’t it?” She turned to Henry, and her smile lit her face. “I haven’t been in here since our last visit to Somerstone.”
He admired the brightness of her eyes. “I haven’t ever been here. You’ll have to keep us from getting lost.”
Their eyes met. And she raised her eyebrows, challenging. “Although, getting lost sounds lovely.”
He laughed. “Exactly my thoughts.” He placed her hand on his arm. “Though we don’t want to be sending Edward after his smelling salts.”
She shook her head. “Dear Edward.”
“I feel for the chap. He is my best friend, after all.”
But neither of them felt enough sympathy to actually respect his wishes it seemed and so they continued.
A familiar smell wafted on a small breeze and ruffled his hair and tickled his nose. Breathing deeply, he said, “You smell lovely. You’re wearing your new rose water.”
She met his eyes. “Thank you for the gift, though I don’t know if you should have. I love it. I’ve already plagued Edward to purchase that particular variety of rose for my garden.”
“And perhaps I should acquire some for mine?” He watched her carefully.
She faltered and then continued before her quiet voice thrilled him. “Perhaps you should.” She didn’t look at him, but the pink of her cheeks told him she guessed his meaning.
Exultant, he forced himself to walk at a slow pace and behave in a calm manner. “Are you looking forward to the ball?”
She met his eyes then, full of excitement. “I am.” She looked down. “Though I will be sorry for parts of this party to end.”
“I hope that the good parts will only continue, and be even better once we are home.” He rested his hand on hers, and she pressed her fingers into his arm, subtly, but in response.
They continued walking down one hedgerow to the next, turning so many corners, Henry lost count. “I do hope you are paying attention? To where we are going?”
She stopped and her face went white. “I wasn’t!” They stared at each other for a moment and then burst into laughter. She looked over her shoulder. “Perhaps Joanna knows.”
He shrugged. “For now, I wish to pretend we are irrevocably lost.”
They followed a stream until it emptied into a pond, in another courtyard between hedges.
“Let’s sit?” Henry indicated the bench on the far side, flowering vines cascading all around.
Joanna moved to stand a good distance away but within sight.
Tabitha twisted her mouth and he could tell she chewed the inside of her cheek.
He grinned, remembering the frustration in her governess about the habit. But he knew something must be troubling her, and he set about immediately to bring a smile.
“Our poetry reading?” He nodded his head in her direction. “Who knew you were so proficient!”
She colored nicely as he knew she would. “I am so very proper and careful all the time. Edward has little to worry about. So I thought to give him a sampling of what he could be faced with.” She shrugged “Were I a true harridan.”
“I enjoyed it myself, I assure you. Perhaps you should display the harridan inside more often?” He laughed when she looked away. “Oh don’t be embarrassed. It was wonderful. And the look on his face!”
He studied her. “But you do seem troubled.”
She looked at her hands.
“You may confide in me. I’m still Henry, you know, the guy with the overly large feet and unappealing nose.”
“What” Your nose is beautiful!” Then she gasped and placed a hand over her mouth.
He leaned back on his hands, inwardly thrilled at her comment, but he didn’t mention it allowing her to recover from what looked like embarrassment. “So, Tabby, how can I help?”
She mirrored his posture, looking at him out of the side of her eyes. “These meetings, our poetry, the waltz, you are so different.” She turned to him.
He kept his face neutral and facing the hedge to their front. “And you don’t know what to make of it?”
“Well, exactly. What is this, Henry?” Her voice had gone quiet, almost a whisper, barely audible over the trickling of the stream.
He stood, reached for her hand, pulled her up until she stood before him. He didn’t want any doubts to his sincerity.
“Henry!” Edwards voice carried out over the maze.
“Oh, dash it all.” Henry was not to be thwarted in this moment.
Then Tauney’s voice, sounding closer than Edward’s, “I don’t think they are here, brother, Besides, I know Joanna is with her.”
They continued to talk but their voices became more dim.
Tabitha looked off, out over the hedges at something, and her face was troubled.
“What is it?”
When she turned to look at him again, he was struck by the sorrow in her face. “I don’t know why you are even here, still spending time with me, when we have to endure such a frenzy. Your own best friend.” Her eyes filled with discomfort, fear even. “I’m sorry, Henry.” She moved as if she would walk away. And alarm filled him, “No Tabby, stay.”
Her eyes widened with hope, he thought, perhaps, or surprise. “What of Edward?”
“I am not concerned about Edward.”
“Certainly not. I am only concerned for you.”
She turned back to face him, slowly nodding. “Oh.” Then her face relaxed. And the light of her usual stars twinkled in one eye.
Henry reached for her hand. “You asked me a question. And I feel you deserve an answer.” He took his time, choosing his words.“You and I got along well as chums and playmates all these years. I admit to preferring your brothers even for many of those younger years.”
She laughed. “I was shorter then. And slower.”
“You have the right of it. The cares of little boys. But as we grew, I came to enjoy you as a dear friend until I even preferred you to them.”
She gasped. “Did you?” Then she narrowed her eyes. “I couldn’t tell. What with your teasing, their teasing. I didn’t know who liked me when.”
He shook his head. “Again, the way of boys.” He started walking. “But there it was, I preferred you.” He cleared his throat. “But never, until that fateful day in the river, did I recognize why.”
Her eyes widened. “The river?”
“It was then that I knew you were no longer my young playmate and friend, but a woman I had come to respect and even, most ardently admire.” He stopped them and pulled her close. “I would never have even dared approach you with these feelings except I saw possible evidence you might return them.”
Tears fell down her cheeks. Dash it all, if he made her sad again, he would desist all effort at once.
“Tabby, is this welcome news?”
She nodded, “Yes! Henry. Most, most welcome.” She lifted his hand to her mouth.
His breath stopping in his chest, he swallowed in amazement as she brought a knuckle to her lips. “I’ve been wanting to do this.” her soft lips pressed into the rough skin of his hand. “And this.” She kissed his second knuckle, his breathing forced. “And this.” She turned his hand over and pressed her soft velvet lips to the center of his palm. He was overcome. How could such a simple gesture overpower him in such a way? She brought her full lips to the inside of his wrist, sending shots of energy up his arm. She stepped closer and placed a hand on his chest and tilted her face up to him.
He thought the pounding would surely raise her hand with its powerful rhythm. She was too much for him. He wanted to crush her to him and kiss her senseless, cover her lips with his own in a manner she would not soon forget. He could not be kissing Tabitha. But that is all his mind would think of doing.
She further closed the distance, her eyes searching his face, full of hope and longing. He knew what she wanted. But she didn’t know what she asked. He could not betray Edward’s trust. He could not move forward until he had asked for her hand. And oh, the agony of it killed him.
She lifted her chin, her soft eyes all but pleading with him. Then she closed them and parted her lips. He stared at her mouth, open and inviting and leaned closer, his lips ready for hers, but instead, placed a kiss on her cheek.
Her eyes fluttered open, disappointment filling them. “Henry?”
His breath coming heavy, he sighed. “Tabby, we can’t.”
“What? I thought you said–”
“Everything I said was true. All of it.”
Her face clouded, confusion marring her peace once again, and Henry had never felt so conflicted.
Tauney burst through the hedge, making them both jump.
“Edward is coming.” Then he stopped and tilted his head. “Though there seems to be nothing of concern here.”
Henry couldn’t tell if he was disappointed or relieved. But Henry was relieved.
Tabitha stepped to Tauney, placing her hand on his arm. “Perhaps we shall go for a walk?”
“Certainly.” His eyes found Henry’s full of questions to which Henry could only answer with a shrug of his shoulders.
When they left, rounded the corner of the next hedgerow, Henry plopped down on the bench. Joanna looked to him with a question.
“You may go, thank you.”
Edward ran in, face red. He took in Joanna’s retreating form and Henry on the bench alone and relaxed his shoulders.
Henry pitied the fellow. “Come friend. Sit with me before I knock some sense into you the old way.”
That evening, Tabitha sent Joanna away as soon as she could. Frustrated, confused, so utterly disappointed, she twirled her ribbons in despair. She thought for sure Henry would kiss her. And once he did, she would believe that he cared, that he perhaps thought of something more permanent, marriage even? Because Henry would never kiss her if he didn’t mean to follow through. But when he didn’t kiss her…her heart shuddered at the thought.
She couldn’t live without Henry. Or if she did, it would have to be far away so as never to happen upon him again.
She shivered, the late night hours catching up to her. The manor had become drafty, a wind picking up outside. Even with the fire Joanna had started for her, she felt cold. She grabbed a robe, and then a pelise and sat by the flickering, crackling flames. She couldn’t possibly sleep, her thoughts rushing through her like a stormy wind outside.
“Damen.” Henry’s voice called outside her door.
She jumped up and placed her ear against it. “What are you doing at this hour in this hallway?” His voice was sharp, demanding.
Was Damen outside her door? Henry as well?
Damen mumbled something in response, and their conversation carried down the hall. She opened the door. Their retreating backs turning the next corner. She ran after them, her bare feet only a soft pad on the wood floors.
She peeked around the corner thay had passed, and Damen and Henry separated. Once the hallway cleared, she ran after Henry. She turned down more hallways than she could count. With luck, she was familiar with this part of the manor and recognized statuary hall when he entered through that door. Curious. She was about to enter after him and make her presence known when another figure darted out from the opposite direction. Lady Summers. She wore only her nightdress, opened the door to the hall, slipped in, and closed it quietly behind her.
Staggering from the shock, Tabitha reached behind her to lean against the wall.
“Are you well?” Damen’s strong hand held her up. “Let’s get you back to your room.”
She could only nod. They moved swiftly and soon she thanked him and fell into her bed, too emotionally tired even for tears.
He pulled the covers up to her chin, whispering, “You deserve much, much more.”
She didn’t answer and hardly noticed when he slipped out the servants’ panel. No wonder Henry hadn’t kissed her. She could only assume it was because he kissed Lady Summers? The dark enveloped her and cloaked her heart, sleep far far away.
- Sixty-Five: Nothing as it seems
- Chapter Sixty: Daring Declarations and Deception
- Chapter Fifty-Two: Poetry and a Kiss, Perhaps?
- Forty Seven: Stolen Moments
- 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