Last time in The Unwanted Suitor: No amount of frank conversation or sweet gingerbread softened Miss Greystock’s determination to hold Sir James at arms-length. But she cannot hide her growing affection for him. If only she would admit it to herself.
Cornelia was not precisely proud of her decision to leave a basket of fish heads under Sir James’ bed. More like justified. After all, he deserved it.
There was no hiding her growing feelings from him any longer, not after their frank communications, but why couldn’t he understand that his attentions were making her the topic of speculation? Already, she had overheard some of the matrons of the party gossiping about her behind their fans. No doubt because they intended her to hear.
Instead of behaving in a way that would quell the gossips, Sir James had continued to pay too much attention to the lowly lady’s companion. He’d given her his own handkerchief when she’d gotten a fleck of dust in her eyes, positioned her chair at dinner because the footmen had been engaged with others, and assisted her in organizing a game of charades for the entertainment of the guests in the drawing room afterward.
Then he’d put his arms around her in full view of everyone, making her blush and tremble in response since there was no hiding the spark of pleasure it gave her. Sure it had all been part of the game, but she had no doubt that others had taken note and drawn conclusions. Irritated and flustered, she had thought of the plan as she had gone to perform her evening duties and seen the pile of discarded fish heads Alphonse had saved for the kitchen cat. If Sir James insisted upon being contrary, she would be contrary too. The odor was not too strong at the moment, but by morning it would be marvelously pungent.
Hurrying through the corridors, however, there was a tug in her mind that perhaps she had gone too far. What if it…decided him against her? The thought sent a pang of worry through her, but she forced herself to keep going. She still hadn’t decided, completely anyway, if she had forgiven him for his high-handed behavior with his brother and the proposal. Even if his smile did make her heart flutter.
As she reached the Countess’ rooms, she knocked lightly and entered when Brimsby opened the door for her. The Countess sat on a stool before her mirror, preparing for bed.
“Ah, Miss Greystock. Come to take Wellington out?”
“Yes, my lady. The rain has finally let up.”
Brimbsy picked up a hairbrush and ran it through the Countess’ hair. Cornelia watched, thinking how lovely her employer must have been in her youth. The Countess’ whole attention was on Cornelia however. “You look flushed, my dear girl.”
“I have been rushing about a bit.”
“Are you sure you are not up to some mischief?”
Cornelia gave a prim smile, knowing the Countess would only be entertained should she find out. “Certainly not. You know I am a staid and unimaginative lady.”
The Countess gave a crack of laughter. “Anyone who thinks that has never taken notice of the gleam in your eyes. Well, have fun my dear, and may you get what you deserve.”
“No doubt I shall,” Cornelia said, thinking of the years of servitude that likely stretched before her. “Come, Wellington.”
The pug jumped down from his chair by the fire and trotted over to her. “I’ll return him soon, my lady.”
Cornelia went out, closing the door as soon as Wellington cleared the doorway. Already his tongue drooped out of his mouth with the exertion of exercise. “And you, my fine fellow, had better not get into mischief. I don’t wish to be standing around in the damp for long. I look forward to sleeping in my lovely fish head free bedroom.”
She took him down the back stairs, though no doubt it was below his dignity, because it was the quickest way to move about. It was a short walk from there to the west door into the gardens. Cornelia opened it and let Wellington saunter forth on his own. For the first few steps, he picked his paws high into the air as if trying to keep from touching the wet grass, but he was too lazy to maintain such effort for long.
Cornelia wished she could sit down on a bench to wait, but it was too wet to attempt. Instead, she stayed very still on the gravel path, her shawl pulled tight over her shoulders, and did her best to not lose the pug in the darkness. As she breathed in the scent of damp earth and the heady fragrance of herbs and roses, she felt her shoulders relax and the tumult in her mind grow still.
A drop of water hit her nose. She looked up, noticing that the sky had grown even darker as a cloud drifted over the moon. Was it going to rain again? Wellington had better return to her soon or she was going to leave him to the mercy of the elements.
The crunch of gravel alerted her that someone approached. Catching her breath, she turned and saw a tall figure strolling toward her. It was dark, but she would always recognize the set of Sir James’ shoulders, his easy, athletic grace, or the proud angle of his head. She felt a jolt of pleasure run through her as it always did when he came near.
Had he discovered the fish heads and come to take her to account over them? Or did he crave her company? No matter how she tried to deny it, she knew she longed for his. Her only chance to keep this situation from sparking out of control was to maintain a cool civility. “Good evening, Sir James. What brings you here?”
“I have come to see if you need any assistance. It makes me uneasy to know you are here alone, in the dark.”
Cornelia felt a shiver course down her spine at the deep, protective tone in his voice. As he came closer, she felt suddenly how very secluded this garden was at night. Before it had been peaceful. Now it felt distinctly clandestine. “And how did you know I was here—alone in the dark?”
“I saw you from the library window.” He was only a few feet away now, his features hidden beneath the brim of his hat. “Though I admit it is mostly an excuse to be alone with you.”
His words sent an exquisite flood of happiness through her. Oh, how she wanted to throw herself into his arms and kiss him again. Appalled, she hoped the night would hide her reaction from him.
But would it be so wrong? Here where no one would see and it would cause no speculation or gossip? Surely one more kiss would be enough—give her something to treasure the rest of her life.
But she knew she would never have enough until she had all of him for every moment and touch they shared sparked a desire for more. She would never have enough of him, ever. The true state of her heart could no longer be denied. She loved him. The realization, the certainty of it, staggered her.
“Cornelia, I’ll not be responsible for my actions if you continue to look at me that way.”
She realized the moon had once again come out of hiding to reveal her face. She opened her mouth to respond, though she didn’t know what to say, when Wellington gave a sharp bark, startling her.
Cornelia turned to see Wellington dash across the path in pursuit of some small creature. “Wellington, come here this instant.” He ignored her of course.
“Pardon me, Sir James, but I must retrieve my charge.”
She ran after the dog, both disappointed the moment had been spoiled and relieved she had not revealed herself in a moment of weakness. Through the darkness, she saw Wellington’s white fur streak past her again as he dove beneath a hedge. It was so sudden that when she stopped running, her slipper skidded on the wet grass and she fell.
It was only then she realized Sir James had been running right behind her. With the wet grass soaking through the back of her dress, Sir James leaned over her, a dark silhouette against the cloudy covered sky.
“Are you hurt?”
“I have not yet ascertained my condition, Sir James,” she said, her voice pert from vexation at having him see her thus. She struggled to sit up, so Sir James squatted next to her, raising her up with one hand beneath her shoulders and another grasping hers.
“Do you hurt anywhere?”
“A few aches that will no doubt turn into bruises and a twinge in my ankle. Nothing to worry about, however.”
Sir James let go of her and moved to examine her ankles. “Pardon me, but I don’t want you to stand until I am sure it is safe for you to do so.”
The feeling of his strong fingers feeling for signs of swelling should not have been so thrilling. She held very still, barely daring to breathe.
“Can you move your feet from side to side?”
Cornelia wiggled her feet, both relieved to find them unhurt and disappointed that she wouldn’t need any further attention from him. “They are well enough,” she said.
“Then let’s get you off this wet ground.” Sir James stood, grasping her hands and pulling her up as if she weighed no more than thistledown. He steadied her, then ran his hands over her arms as if to confirm that they too were uninjured. And then his touch changed, becoming a caress.
Cornelia’s breath caught, but he mustn’t know how he affected her. “Do not worry, Sir James. I am perfectly well—only damp and muddied. And mortified.”
He chuckled. “You looked charming when you lay there stunned I assure you.”
She raised her eyebrows, thinking he was teasing her, but there was a note of sincerity in his voice that made her flush.
The clouds chose that moment to open up, releasing more than just an occasional drip. In a matter of seconds, Cornelia was drenched. She shivered and hunched her shoulders against the rain.
Sir James cursed softly. “Can you walk?”
“Then go. You mustn’t fall ill.”
“What about Wellington?”
“I’ll catch the mongrel. Now go.”
Cornelia didn’t hesitate. She went as quickly as she dared, hoping desperately that she wouldn’t slip again. Her soaking wet skirt clung to her legs, making it difficult to walk, much less run. She stepped inside and tried to wring the water from her skirts as she watched anxiously for Sir James’ return.
It occurred to her then that the man she loved was out in the rain, no doubt extremely uncomfortable, searching out a dog that had likely taken shelter under a bush—all for her. She thought of all the times and ways he had shown he cared. Now that she knew the state of her own heart more clearly, she could no longer resist him. What were a few scathing words of gossip compared to a lifetime as his wife? And why should she make them both suffer over actions he professed to regret?
No sooner did she come to this shattering conclusion than she remembered. “Dear Heavens, the fish heads.”
Turning, she ran for the servants’ stairs, ignoring the slight ache in her ankle. If she hurried, she would have time to remove them before he returned with Wellington. Her skirts were still too wet for easy movement so she pulled them into a bundle, holding them up to her knees and prayed no one would see her so exposed. But all that mattered was speed.
She arrived at the corridor that led to his room, but she had to wait a moment as one of the Easton brothers walked to his room and shut the door behind him. She waited silently until she was sure no one else was coming, then ran to Sir James’ room. Signs his servant had been in the room recently showed by the candles lit around and the bedcovers being drawn back. She jerked to a halt when she saw them, flustered at the sight, then shook herself back to reason. Running over to the bed, she lay down on the floor and reached her arm out for the basket. Unfortunately, when she had placed it there, she had pushed it further than she could now reach. Groaning in frustration, she wiggled until she was partially under the bed.
Finally, straining every muscle, she reached the basket and pulled it to her. There was no way she could walk back through the corridors, dripping wet and carrying a basket of fish heads. Anyone who saw her would think her mad. And the most likely person to see her was Sir James. She looked around the room wildly and decided her best course was to open the window and toss the basket out.
Hurrying across the room, she opened the casement, dropped the evidence to the ground, and closed it again. As she turned, however, footsteps sounded in the room.
Gasping, she saw Sir James frozen in the doorway. His hat was off, water dripping to the floor all around him. His eyes swept over her, then around his room, lingering for a moment on the pulled-back bedcovers, then back to her. His broad chest rose as he breathed heavily. “Cornelia, I am at a loss to understand why you are here, but I know one thing very well. You had best remove your delectable self while I still retain the ability to let you go.”
There was a vibrating magnetism emanating from him that was both shocking and fascinating. She knew he was in earnest so she rushed to the door. He stepped out of her way but grasped her arm as she passed by.
“No more games, Cornelia. It is time for decisions.”
He released her without another word, then motioned sharply with his head for her to go. She picked up her skirts and ran.