Lady Bulphan’s Garden Party, three weeks into the Season…
Dorothea watched Freddie flirt shamelessly with a young widow on the croquet lawn and tried not to feel bothered by it. Why should she care who he flirted with? It wasn’t as if she had any interest in the wretch. Handsome he may be, but Freddie Fitzroy was too cocky, too wayward and too vexing to appeal to her. Besides, she already had Peter and he was absolutely perfect for her.
If she kept telling herself that, there was every chance she would believe it.
Or not, as the case seemed to be.
Since her two inexplicable odd moments with that scoundrel Freddie, she had made a concerted effort to appreciate her soon-to-be fiancé in the manner in which she should. She had even made a list of the favourable attributes which Peter possessed compared to the unfavourable, and the good outweighed the bad three to one. He was handsome, wealthy, reliable, good-natured, humorous, self-effacing. Kind to servants and animals—which surely spoke volumes—and attentive in all the correct ways. In fact, he was so attentive about so many things they were almost predictable. Like the twice-weekly bouquets he sent every Wednesday and Saturday morning, and always being the first to pencil his name into her dance card, where he claimed both the opening and closing dances. And he remained loyally by her side, exactly as he was now, for at least half of every public entertainment even when they had run out of things to talk about. The written exercise had confirmed that he was a truly lovely man and that she was indeed lucky to have him—even if she wasn’t yet anywhere closer to being in love with him as she had hoped.
She suppressed a sigh and tried to concentrate on the conversation she was involved in. Her parents and Peter’s were reminiscing about the old days when both she and her intended fiancé used to play together. Like her, Peter was listening more than joining in, his gaze often distracted by the revelry going on around them, making her wonder if he was as unenthused about their intended nuptials as she was.
He certainly still hadn’t formally proposed, which was a source of much frustration to their mothers, who were doing everything in their power to leave them alone. Yet when they were, by unspoken tacit agreement, they discussed everything but. As if they were both avoiding the subject. Or dreading it.
All very worrying.
Almost as worrying as her silly obsession with Freddie Fitzroy.
‘Peter!’ his standoffish best friend and constant shadow, Lord Toby Sedgewick, called across the lawn, wielding tennis racquets. ‘We urgently need a fourth!’
‘Yes, of course!’ It was all the encouragement her almost-fiancé needed to jump to his feet, then with his expression a tad pained, he smiled awkwardly at the rest of them. ‘That is, if you don’t mind?’
As everyone looked to Dorothea to grant the permission, as if she would be inconsolable if he left, she cheerfully nodded her approval. ‘Have fun.’ Because she certainly wasn’t and couldn’t blame him for wanting to escape the forced gaiety that had become their relationship. She had been desperate for an excuse to escape herself for the last hour, which did not bode well when they were going to be stuck together for two days here at the Bulphans’ picturesque Surrey estate and for all eternity once they married.
‘You should go with them.’ His mother nudged her. ‘Cheer him on.’
‘No…’ Apart from the fact that she could think of nothing worse than being a fifth wheel, Toby always made Dorothea feel uncomfortable, although why he seemed to dislike her so intensely was a mystery to her. ‘I was going to catch up with some friends myself.’
As Peter bounded off, and in case their two mothers gave her another lecture about cajoling him into a proposal, she stood herself and pretended to search for some friends, then strode off across the lawn with purpose. A convenient shrubbery shielded her from view as she veered away from the garden party to the pretty, wild wooded area of the grounds.
Finally alone with her tangled thoughts, Dorothea found a sunny spot amongst the trees where the last bluebells were still flowering and lay flat on her back to stare at the sky, hoping a solution might materialise which would make all her unease disappear.
His shadow fell on her face before he spoke. ‘How goes your quest to fall in love with the man of your parents’ dreams, Dot?’ How typical that he wouldn’t beat around the bush, and how convenient that he should find her here in the first place when she had made sure she was well hidden from everyone.
She stood and glared despite her silly pulse quickening at his presence. ‘A better question is why you followed me here.’
‘I’ve kept asking myself the same thing.’ At least he did not deny it as he shrugged. ‘And the only answer I can honestly give is I felt compelled to. Much to my complete chagrin, and despite all my best efforts to the contrary, I appear to be worried about you.’ He looked as flummoxed by that as he did about his reasons for following her. ‘Nobody should have to marry someone they don’t want to, Dot.’
‘It’s not that I don’t want to…’ In the absence of anyone else to discuss this with, and because Freddie was apparently the only person on the planet who had noticed her reticence towards her impending engagement, she supposed he would have to do. ‘It’s more…’ How to phrase something she didn’t even begin to understand herself? ‘Peter and I are used to being friends, so the shifted boundaries in our relationship, like new shoes, take a bit of time to get used to.’
‘That don’t yet fit.’ Freddie’s disbelief at her hasty analogy made her feel silly.
‘In my experience, any new shoes that do not fit like a glove the second you put them on are always a mistake, Dot, and there is nothing worse than ill-fitting shoes. They rub and give you either blisters or bunions.’
He touched her arm. Just the briefest touch, but she still felt it everywhere. ‘If you are worried about breaking Peter’s heart, I have to tell you that in the last few weeks I’ve been watching him almost as much as I have been watching you—’ a sentence which thrilled her more than it should ‘—and he doesn’t seem like a man besotted to me. Trust me, I know the symptoms, and he appears to suffer from none of them.’
‘Such as?’ She folded her arms, both annoyed he had confirmed all her suspicions and because that one slight touch had sent her pulse berserk.
‘Their gaze constantly wandering to the object of their desire, for example, especially when she moves. Thinking about the woman incessantly. Dreaming about her. Worrying about her.’ He frowned as he ran an agitated hand through his hair. ‘Following her into the woods to be alone with her even though you know that you shouldn’t when she technically belongs to someone else, but you are powerless to stop yourself.’ His bright blue eyes locked with hers, intense but perturbed. ‘Burning with a desire to kiss her—just once as an experiment—to see if a single kiss is as profound as every brief touch seems to be.’
Dorothea blinked back at him, stunned, her feet rooted to the spot despite knowing she should march away outraged by his impertinence. How dare he say such outrageous things to her!
How dare he!
Yet when he reached for her hand, of their own accord her fingers laced with his, and when he gently tugged her towards him, she went willingly. Sighing against his mouth in contentment when his lips whispered over hers, because that was exactly where they had apparently always needed to be.
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