In the last episode of Tabitha’s Folly, Henry declares himself, and there is hope for the two of them, until Tabitha sees what appears to be a clandestine meeting with Lady Summers in Statuary Hall.
Tabitha had all of Sunday to think about Henry’s strange behavior, his clandestine meetings, his almost kiss followed by the image of Lady Summer’s retreating form into statuary hall. She and the brothers had attended church as usual with no Henry at her side. He had disappeared from sight. Her angst grew the longer she had to wait to confront him.
Lady Summers. The thought of that woman made her want to throw things.
Henry had seemed so enamored with her, Tabby. He acted as though he cared. She wanted to scream. Still, after everything, she did not know Henry’s intentions. How could a man seem one thing and then act another only to remind her yet again how much she adored him.
But no matter how much she didn’t know, she did know exactly that: how much she adored Henry. And she determined that tonight, at the ball, she would make sure he knew too. She had been ruled by fear too much where Henry was concerned. And she walked carefully around him, worried to scare him away. And now, at last, she was done. She would be herself, the person he said he preferred even to her brothers. She would be bold. And she would let him know how she felt. If she never gained his affection, if she never learned his true feelings of the heart, at least he would know hers.
Joanna pulled at her hair, working a new style. “It will make you look even more beautiful, my lady.”
Her maid’s hopeful smile did little to comfort Tabitha. But she stayed firm in her resolve and shut out any fearful or hesitant thoughts.
At last she was ready, wearing a new gown, and with the extra care, she knew she had never looked better. Tonight. He would know tonight or never and if that was the case, she would at last give him up.
She stepped out to the top of the stairs. Her brothers met her there. All of them, looking as handsome as ever. They wore equally stunned expressions, mouths open, eyebrows raised, Julian even looked twice, which made her laugh. “Is there a problem?”
Edward cleared his throat and held his arm out to her. “No problem.”
As they moved down the stairs, Tauney whispered, “You look stunning, Tabby.”
She smiled, her confidence growing.
“Do you have any dances set up for the evening?” Edward glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.
“I do. Henry has asked for the first and the supper set.” She didn’t even care if Edward approved.
But he surprised her and smiled. “Good. We can relax during those sets then.” He rested a hand on hers.
She opened her mouth in surprised. At first she was relieved, had Edward at last given his approval? But then another worry quickly chased the relief away. What if he knew Henry no longer cared, and that was why he felt little need to chaperone during their dances?
Her new bravery tried to falter, shake, but she refused to let it crumble. No matter what Henry felt, she would not change her course.
She and her brothers made their way to the ballroom entrance. The footmen opened the doors and announced all the Eastons. She held her head high, happy to be surrounded by so much love and support.
The room was full. She sucked in her breath in astonishment. The Countess had invited others, the neighboring gentry, and everyone seemed to be in audience.
The music started for the first set, and Edward nodded to her. “I’ll leave you to Henry then.” She took in one long slow breath and let it out carefully. Now is the time. He already made his way towards them, eyes warming the air around where she stood. Even her toes tingled as she watched his tall handsome form shorten the distance between them.
Her brothers dispersed, finding their partners, and still she waited. Henry was stopped by many on his way. He talked to them all. With each pause, her anticipation grew and she put a hand on her stomach. And then Lady Summers approached
All thought jarred to a stop as Tabitha watched.
Lady Summers pulled Henry out towards the ballroom floor; she curtseyed to him and he bowed in response.
Tabitha clenched the fabric at her stomach. Was he to dance the first set with lady Summers now? What was to be Tabitha’s set? She couldn’t bear to watch. Before he could rise up out of his bow, she fled the room. She couldn’t converse with him afterward as if she too forgot the set, it was too much. perhaps she could avoid him forever. She pushed through the arriving guests and out the double doors.
Damen stood back with a tray of drinks, ready to enter. When he saw her, his face filled with concern. “Miss Easton, what is it?”
“Oh Damen.” She didn’t care how loud she sounded. “I must go to my room.”
He nodded. “Here. Have this wine first.” He walked back toward the kitchen, down a servant’s hallway. Until they were in a blessedly private location.
She gulped her wine. He handed her a handkerchief so that she could wipe it from her mouth.
Damen seemed to consider her for a moment and then he said, “I have just the thing.” His smile, warm and teasing. “Go to your room, grab a pair of sturdy boots and something warmer to wear.”
“The Countess has it on our schedule this evening for those who would like. Star gazing. I’ll get the carriage and we shall go earlier.”
She waited, not really wanting to go anywhere at all.
“There is a lovely spot where the stars are brightest. We bring hot chocolate and teas. It is the highlight activity of the house party. She will announce it as a surprise after supper.”
She considered for a moment more, and Damen tipped his head and smiled, a full, white-toothed grin.
She began to feel her senses dull a little, the shock of being forgotten by Henry fade away. She swayed on her feet. “Ooops.”
Damen held her up. “Go get your things. Meet me on the South side of the manor. I’ll be there with the star-gazing kit and one of the carriages.”
She nodded. Lovely. This would be lovely. No need for her to miss the best part of the house party just because she wanted to be alone. Damen would take care of it. Then she would go to bed and avoid Henry for the rest of her life.
On her way back down the stairs, she stumbled on the last step as she saw Joanna. “I’ll be going on the countess’ star gazing activity. Not to worry, a footman will escort.”
Joanna’s face wrinkled in concern for a moment and then cleared. “Yes, my lady.”
Before long, Tabitha was bundled up in blankets and on her way in the carriage. As the blankets warmed her and she sank deeper into their comfort, she found it more and more difficult to concentrate. Perhaps it was the wine? She had never been so affected by one wine before.
Damen sat across from her, his eyes warm, but different. Hopeful, caring, and something else, calculating. She blinked and his image wavered in front of her.
He moved to sit beside her. “We are almost to the spot. I wonder if I might discuss something with you first?”
She nodded, her head falling forward for longer than she planned before she forced it to rise again.
“I have long admired you. I think you may have noticed?”
She didn’t know what to say.
He moved to sit beside her. “You, of all the ladies here have caught my eye and I have appreciated our friendship.” He ran a finger along her forehead. And she shivered, pulling back a little from his touch. “My feelings for you have grown. At first, it was admiration, naturally. But now, I think of you night and day, watch you. Your sleeping form is so angelic.”
She started in alarm, her eyes widening.
“So pure. I couldn’t simply take you as my own, without making things legitimate between us. Our children will never be cursed with my fate.”
She sat up straighter in her seat. What was he saying? Blast my brain. Why cannot I not think? “Damen–” Her body swayed.
“I come to you, not without resources, Tabby— family, connections even. A promise of an estate in my mother’s homeland. My family is well-known throughout the valley.” He sat back. “No title, unfortunately, but with you, an Earl’s daughter and sister, that’s what you provide us.”
“No one at this party appreciates you the way I do. I love you, Tabitha. And ask, will you be my wife?”
She closed her eyes, confusion taking over her brain. As she tried to force concentration, she shook her head. “No Damen. You and I can’t marry. I must marry Henry.”
He leaned closer. “But Henry danced with another, remember? Clandestine meetings with Lady Summers. He doesn’t care for you like I do.”
How did he know about Lady Summers? She could barely keep her eyes open. But she felt adamant about one thing. Henry’s eyes came into her mind, their wide, hopeful expression full of love. She could not deny it. “But he does care. Henry loves me.” At last she knew. He loved her. One look into his face and she should have known all along.
“I care.” Damen’s voice startled her. “Did you hear me? I love you. I’m here, now, offering everything to you. Does that not count for something?” His sharpness hurt her ears and rattled about in her head.
She blinked, his image doubled. “I can’t…Damen, I don’t love you.” Her eyes closed, too heavy to lift her lids. She peered at Damen through slits, trying to concentrate.
His face turned rigid, his eyes cold. Then he rapped on the roof with his cane.
The carriage jerked forward with a burst of speed. And fear rose through her haze. “What? Damen. Turn around. Where are we going? Slow down.”
“Just rest Tabitha, my sweet. We have a long ride to Scotland.”
Henry stepped away from Lady Summers as soon as he greeted her. “If you’ll excuse me, my first dance is taken.”
Her pouty face irritated him. After throwing her out of statuary hall, and then running from her chasing form so no one would catch them together, she was more than bold to approach him again today.
Tabitha’s retreating figure pushed through the guests and out the door. He followed, but on his way, he was stopped by nearly everyone, and the set was over before he could even leave the ballroom. Perhaps she was unwell. He would wait to see if she returned. They had the supper set together. He was more than anxious to see her, to be with her, to spend some time. Yesterday had been a long and tiresome day, filled with many hours not in her presence. He was more determined now than ever that he would declare himself and ask for her hand.
As the minutes passed and she did not return, he sought out Edward. And then they both found Joanna.
A surprised Joanna stood at the servants’ table in the kitchen. “She said she was going to the countess’ star gazing activity. And not to worry because a footman would accompany.”
“Dash is all.” Henry ran from the room, Edward close behind.
They tore into the barn. “Do you know of any star gazing activities tonight?”
The hand shook his head, shocked at their abrupt entrance. “Though the countess’ carriage was prepared and ready and left about an hour ago.”
“Ready your fasted horse.” Henry turned to Edward. “I must go after her.”
“I’ll get the others. We will follow in case there’s trouble.’
“Leave Tauney here.”
“In case she returns.”
Edward tore off back to the house and Henry impatiently waited for his horse. “Ready three others once mine is out.”
Henry leapt up onto the horse, digging into his flanks the moment his seat hit the saddle. The horse took off at a gallop and Henry urged him faster.
- 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