In our last chapter of Tabitha’s Folly, Henry is distracted by helping the new ladies. He and Damen act in a suspicious manner.
All the Eastons gathered in the conservatory in the early morning hours. Soft light filtered through the glass. The thick air and rich smell of earth surrounded them. It was a typical–plan who would accompany Tabitha throughout the day–meeting; but for some reason, on this morning, Tabitha was required to attend.
Tabitha sighed in resignation while the brothers argued and bargained for who would have to be with Tabitha during which activities. She let her mind wander. Henry’s suspicious behavior troubled her: clandestine meetings, frantic paranoia about Damen, distrust.
And now Henry, talking of reform, her suspicions grew. She had overheard he and Lord Felling on her way to the library–snippets of plans for a rally, of reform, even of possible danger. Whigs. Raised from a long line of Tories, her family didn’t like Whigs.
Rustling in the trees drew her attention. Giggling carried over to them and then Henry and Lady Summers turned the corner and came into view. Tabitha’s heart sank. He spent more time with Lady Summers than herself.
Henry held his arm out towards her brothers and turned to the woman at his side. “Here you go. I shall leave you to finish your walk with one of the fine Eastons.”
Julian only smirked but Oscar straightened and held out his hand. “We are almost finished here. Perhaps you would enjoy a turn about the gardens with me?”
Her calculating expression almost made Tabitha laugh.
Lady Summers rested her hand on Oscar’s outstretched arm and they turned down the next row of foliage.
As soon as Lady Summers left, Henry said, “I’m sorry I am late for the meeting.” Then he frowned. “Come to think of it, I didn’t know we were even having one.” He turned in question to Edward who didn’t respond but his face pinched, and Tabitha knew immediately he had kept the meeting from Henry.
“What time would you like me to be present?” He came to stand at her side. “Hello Tabby Cat.” His low voice sent tremors through her.
Edward frowned. “How about you be available if we need you through the afternoon. We’ve got it planned out and taken care of otherwise.”
“But I’m more than happy to take my turn. In fact, I could accompany her out on the pond again, or we could take the horses out or something fun instead of just standing about watching her talk to other men.” He coughed. “Or women.” His face turned pink.
Edward cleared his throat. “You could of course do that, and one of us will accompany.” He paused before he looked up.
Henry stiffened for a moment, then relaxed. “You feel the need to chaperone her when I am present.”
Edward watched him, measuring. “I do.”
Tabitha placed her hand on his arm. “Surely such a thing is not necessary.” What if Henry became too bothered to try?
“I believe it is.”
Henry’s face clouded. “We need to discuss this.”
Henry nodded and then winked at Tabitha which settled some of her angst. He turned to leave the conservatory just as Oscar and Lady Summers approached.
Lady Summers pouted. “Oh where is Lord Courteney going?”
When no one answered, she turned to Oscar. “Would you mind accompanying me to breakfast?”
“Certainly, my lady.” He stretched his hand forward, indicating she lead the way. Then he turned to Edward. “Just tell me where you most need me.”
When she and Edward were at last alone, Edward spoke first. “Tabby.” He took her hand in his. “I know this is all one big frustration for you.”
She sighed. “Most of the time, yes. I feel you are more strict than father ever would have been.” Before he could respond, she added, “But I thank you. When I notice the other ladies and their limited support, I thank the stars for my brothers.”
“I am glad you feel that way, because I feel the need to caution you.”
His tone sounded wary. She sucked in her breath, waiting.
Indignation rose inside, fear that he might squelch whatever emotion Henry could be feeling for her. “Edward, really.”
“His intentions toward you are unclear. He has not spoken with me and yet he is behaving almost as if he would court you.” He rubbed his forehead and then pinched the bridge of his nose. “At least it appears that way. At times.”
An anxious feeling grew inside. “I know! He seems so fickle, one moment holding my hand, the next completely ignoring me, the next escorting ladies through the conservatory. What am I to think?”
“And your feelings? Are they engaged?”
Her eyes found the floor, because she didn’t know what to tell him, how much to reveal. If he knew, would he further curtail their activities?
He was silent for a moment. “Tabby?” When she didn’t respond, he cleared his throat. “We all love Henry. He is like a brother. But I had never considered him as anything but my best friend until he held your hand in church, and when I saw that…”
She looked up.
His eyes held pain. “I didn’t like it.”
Her heart sank. How could he not approve of Henry? She summoned her courage.“I can think of no better man than Henry. We have known him our whole lives. He has never behaved in any manner less than honorable.” Her eyes welled with unshed tears and she clenched her fists, mortified to be bearing even that small part of herself.
His eyes widened. “Your tendre for him is stronger than I realized.”
She felt her face heat then she nodded. “I have admired him since I was a young girl.”
Edward mussed up his hair, turning intense and agitated eyes toward her. “He is involved in things. Activities that might put him at risk, might jeopardize his standing in society, could involve his future wife in unpleasantness.”
She thrilled at his words, “future wife.” But she considered Edward’s and her own concerns. She admitted to herself she had seen a completely different side of Henry than the boy she’d always known. “But surely it cannot be as risky as you make it sound, for his wife.”
Edward’s eyes bore into hers, his sincerity obvious. “Besides his suitability, we don’t know his intentions. He has not approached me, and that is another reason that gives me pause.” He placed a hand at the side of her face. “His feelings may not be engaged.”
Her brother’s worried expression and his desire to shield her from hurt combined as evidence of Henry’s uncaring. A lump grew in her throat. If Henry was interested, would he not have expressed as much to Edward? She didn’t know if she could stand more disappointment at the hands of Henry. She looked away from Edward, and then her lips started to tremble and her eyes well. She didn’t want Edward to see just how much she hurt, how poignantly she longed for his best friend, so she ran from her brother, towards the back of the conservatory.
Henry left, but returned, determined to speak with Edward as soon as possible. His best friend deserved to know his changing feelings, even if Edward may at first disapprove. And Henry was determined to win him over, make him see reason. Henry stepped into the room, and then backed into the shadows of a tree. Edward stood with his hand on Tabby’s cheek, deep in conversation. His words carried over. “His feelings might not be engaged.” A sick feeling of dread chilled him. And then Tabby wilted in front of her brother, and shortly after, ran off toward the back of the conservatory.
He stomped forward, “Edward!” His voice surprised him at its sharpness. As soon as she was close enough to speak in hushed undertones, he continued. “How dare you speak to Tabby that way, of my feelings. You have no idea.”
His eyes sharpened. “You are correct. What exactly are your intentions where my sister is concerned?”
Henry stood taller. “I have not approached you about my intentions because I haven’t known what they are.”
“And that is exactly why I thought to give Tabby a warning. You wish to engage Tabitha’s heart while you are as yet uncertain of your intentions”
“Do you not trust me?”
“No, I don’t trust you.” His expression did not waver. “And further, it pains me to say it. But I am hesitant about your suitability.”
Hurt tremmered through him and anger he tried to tamp. “How can you say that? Your own best friend isn’t good enough for her?”
“Not with your reformist activities. No one wants to be tied to a Whig, Henry. What will this do to her standing? Her friends?”
Henry clenched his fists. “My activities are mostly in secret. Few except those closest to me know I am involved.”
Edward nodded. “But will these activites place you in danger? Will they bring upheaval to a quiet life Tabby would otherwise have?”
Henry shrugged. “Who can say? But have you considered she might not crave such a quiet life, that our Tabby–”
Edward cleared his throat.
Henry stood taller, losing patience with his best friend. “Yes, our Tabby. She has been my friend all these years just as she is your sister. Have you considered that she might desire more substance to her life, a cause worth supporting?”
Edward shook his head. “That is not for you to decide.”
“Can she not have a say in the matter?” His friend was being unreasonable, taking his role as guardian too seriously.
“Of course she can. But up until now, I have seen only confusion and hurt in her eyes where you are concerned.”
Henry paused. With great sorrow, he felt the truth of Edward’s words barrel into his chest. He cleared his throat, his mouth turning down. “May I work to show her I can bring peace and happiness?” His voice cracked. “Do I have your permission to try?”
Edward crossed his arms. “You may try. With sufficient chaperones. Obviously a brother will always be present.”
“Present is acceptable; hovering is ridiculous.”
“You didn’t think it was so ridiculous when you were hovering.”
“Well, now it is different.” Henry tried to stem his exasperation. He couldn’t lose patience with Edward, even if he was his best friend and in any other situation might have pounded it out of him by now.
“To me things are unchanged as far as her protection is concerned.”
A burst of air escaped Henry’s lips and he stopped many thoughts from being vocalized. “So be it.” He walked in the direction Tabby had gone.
“Where are you going?”
“You’ve hurt her, leading her to believe me uncaring. I can’t stand the thought that I have been the cause of anything but happiness in her.”
Edward’s eyes lit. “You do care.”
Henry turned to fully face him, staring into Edward’s eyes. “Of course I do. You’re dense not to see it”
Edward nodded. “Ten minutes.” As Henry picked up his pace, to follow Tabitha, Edward called out, “But don’t be too comforting.”
Henry laughed and then ran down a path through the trees, planted on each side.
Her slippers left soft foot marks in the dirt path, and he moved through the conservatory quickly, anxious to at last declare himself, hoping to find her and clear up any concern she might have regarding his feelings. He would replace every worried and anxious expression with one of supreme happiness. Then her giggle stopped him short. He jerked to a stop at the scene before him.
“Thank you, Damen. I cannot tell you how comforting to me you have been.”
Henry pushed through the remaining bushes and clenched his fists. Tabitha sat next to Damen on a bench beneath a flowering arbor. She had a flower behind her ear. Their happy scene was just what he had hoped to produce and waves of disappointment, jealousy, dislike and distrust flowed through him. “What is this?”
He sounded like Edward. But it couldn’t be helped. Nothing appropriate was happening here.
Tabitha startled and the embarrassment that crossed her face made him cringe. This is not how he hoped she could learn to see him. He must stop the role of chaperone in her life.
He approached. “Thank you Damen, that will be all.”
She gasped beside him and Damen stiffened in his seat. But none of the discomfort in this moment could be helped. The footman must be reminded of his place. He should be standing when with Tabitha. And should have stood upon Henry’s approach.
Slowly, agonizingly slowly, Damen rose, bowed to Henry, then turned from him and did something with his face that made Tabitha smile before walking away in a stiff, proper footman gait.
Henry turned to her, filled with anticipation for a moment alone with Tabby–
“How could you?”
He sputtered to a stop. “What?”
“How could you do that to Damen, treat him like that?”
“What are you talking about? I treat him better than any other servant here.”
“But he’s Damen.”
The significance of that was totally lost on him.
“He… he is my friend.”
Henry regretted his callousness, but felt she should be reminded of few things. “Tabby, this is the second time you are found alone with this footman. What if anyone else had discovered you?”
“I didn’t plan it. I never plan it. But he happens upon me when I need a friend.” Her eyes lifted to his and held such a sadness, he wished to wipe it completely away.
He indicated the spot on the bench beside her. “May I?”
When she nodded, he sat beside her. “I just think he needs to understand his place. You have given him liberties.”
She was about to protest.
“Innocent liberties, naturally, but he might be harboring expectations.”
She frowned but did not respond. He thought it a good sign; hopefully she was considering his comments with the weight they deserved.
He moved closer. “I only have a few moments.”
She turned from him. “Sorry to keep you.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. Edward agreed to let me come.”
She turned to him in surprise. “Did he?” Her eyes held such renewed hope, it gave him courage.
She swallowed and narrowed the distance more. “Have you spoken to him…about anything?”
Henry reached for her hand. This was not the moment for his declaration. What would he say to her? “Perhaps you’ve noticed a… change in my behavior.”
Her eyes turned wary. This wasn’t going how he planned. Dash that footman.
“What I mean is, our waltz, it was lovely. Holding you was…”
Her cheeks turned the brightest red.
Oh dash it all. I’ve embarrassed her.
Now was not the time. “Tabitha. I just want you to know, I am here for you. Always. Whatever you find in that footman, you have in those all around you who care.”
Her eyes dropped.
Then he brought her hand to his lips and kissed her first knuckle. “And not in a brotherly manner as I always have.” He moved his lips to her second knuckle. “Things are different now, with me.” He searched her face. Then placed one more kiss on the third knuckle. “See. I’ve never done that before.”
She shook her head.
He turned her hand over and found the softness on her wrist. “Or this.” He brought it up to his mouth, her fluttering heartbeat, racing under his lips, he lingered for a moment then squeezed her hand in his own. “Do you understand?”
She closed her mouth and nodded. “I think so.”
Henry searched her face. Her eyes held such a light, a happiness, her hope had returned. He ran the back of his hand along her cheek. Her exquisitely soft skin warming him at his center. He drank in the hope in her eyes that he had ignited. “You’re happy.”
“I am, in this moment.”
“I wish for you forever to be so.” He reveled in the precious few minutes remaining, committing to bring Tabitha Easton years of uninterrupted happiness.
- 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