Good lord, but it wasn't like her to be so whimsical! Guy Minard was simply a handsome and entitled man who had wandered into her life by chance, and in a moment he was going to wander back out of it, for he was grimacing as he consulted his watch.
"It's too late to go back for tea now," he said. "I expect you'll be wanting to get on with your work?"
He made no move to go. Esme indicated the bench. "My subject as deserted me," she said, hoping that Mr Heseltine did not suddenly recall his appointment.
They sat down side by side. She was acutely conscious of her lack of crinoline, of his lack of coat. Some would consider their state of undress scandalous. It meant that when she turned towards him, her knee brushed his leg. Instead of moving away, he returned the pressure. Esme's breath caught as the flickering of desire caught her unaware. She made no move, though she knew she ought to. He made no move either, though she was sure he was as aware of the contact as she. She could see it in his eyes. Could he see the same in hers?
"What would you see, Esme, if you were looking at me through your camera?" he asked, his mind obviously travelling along the same lines.
"I've been presumptuous, but Mrs Thomson makes you sound like a housekeeper. Esme suits you much better."
"It means esteemed, I am told, from the French."
"Appropriate enough, with regards the photographer, but as to the woman—that is not the word I would have chosen."
Their gazes were locked. She was struggling to breathe evenly. She had always found the idea of two strangers succumbing to passion preposterous, but now she could understand how it could happen. Her thoughts were taking a scandalous path. She was not a scandalous woman. She was discrete and practical. "What word would you choose, Guy?"
He smiled when she said his name. It was a very dangerous smile, it seemed to her. "Intriguing," he answered. "Unusual. Voluptuous."
"That is three words."
"You strike me as a complex woman."
"You've only just met me."
"I feel as if I was brought here to meet you."
Recalling the real reason for his presence at the party broke the spell. Esme sat back, breaking the contact. "Which one of Lord Armstrong's nieces are you intending to propose to?"
He sighed. "I haven't even met her yet, nor will I until it is agreed that the matter is even worth pursuing."
"Until you pass muster, in other words?"
"I should not have put it like that. I meant no disrespect. The lady in question is the only child of his lordship"s elder brother."
"James, the one who died before he could inherit the title. I know a little of the family history from Lady Armstrong," Esme explained, discretely downplaying the real extent of her knowledge. "I believe she is something of an heiress."
"Precisely why my brother is so keen on the match," Guy replied, looking distinctly uncomfortable, "and one of the reasons that I am more—let's say equivocal. I am not a fortune hunter, but my brother is in need of a fortune for our father left the estates deeply in debt."
"So you are marrying for your brother's sake? That's very altruistic of you."
"No, it isn"t. Max has been married for fifteen years now, and he and his wife sadly remain childless. When he dies—and I sincerely hope he lives to a ripe old age—I will be his heir."
"And more to the point, as far as Lord Armstrong is concerned, his niece"s son will by your heir," Esme said dryly.
"Unless you make a complete fool of yourself this week then, I cannot imagine how you can fail to pass muster, and you are no fool. You would never have been invited to such a prestigious event as this house party if there were any doubt about your suitability."
"That is clear to me now, though it wasn't until I came here. What Max referred to as an understanding seems to be not much short of a signed contract. There's always the chance that my prospective bride will take me in dislike of course, but once Lord Armstrong puts his seal of approval on the deal, it will be too late to put a halt to it without causing a scandal."
"You should have thought of that too, before you came here."
"I did, in fact. I wanted to meet her first, but I was overruled and I didn't insist because I thought this was simply a preliminary step. You must thing I'm a naïve idiot, but it was very difficult to argue with Max, you see. Duty, the family name, our father's debts—I mean, his reasoning is irrefutable."
"If you really are as unsure as you sound, it was a big mistake to come here."
"Ah, but then I wouldn"t have met you."
"Don"t be flippant. It might be better for both of us if you had not. Not that I mean that anything— I mean we are simply ships that pass in the night."
"Do you really think so, Esme? Don't you feel as I do, that we were meant to meet?"
"No," she said firmly, because she wouldn't let herself feel any such thing. "You are a romantic."
"I am, unashamedly," Guy said, smiling. "I'm twenty-six years old. I have never met a woman I could imagine spending the rest of my life with, but I have not given up hoping I might."
"You are talking about falling in love?"
"Isn't that what everyone dreams of?"
"When they are very young. Before they learn that love doesn't make the world go around. It's money that does that." The regret in her voice took her aback.
Guy took her hand again. "Is that what happened to you?"
The way he looked at her, as if he could see what she was thinking, made her uncomfortable. "We're not talking about me." But she made no effort to free herself from his clasp or his gaze.
"Did you love your husband, Esme?"
She shook her head.
"Were you in love with someone else?"
"Good heavens no, I would never have married him if I had been. Marriage is a sacred vow. Whatever reasons a person has for making it, it is a promise for life."
"My thoughts exactly." Guys hand tightened on hers. "If I make this match, I'll be sacrificing the chance of ever finding love. The chance of looking into someone else's eyes and being swept away. Of knowing that she sees me. That she knows me, and loves me as I am, for all my faults. That we are two halves of one…" He broke off, colouring. "You see, I really am a hopeless romantic."
"Hopeless," Esme said, enchanted by his words, and the vision he had conjured up. "I have never been in love."
"A person is never too old to fall in love."
Reluctantly, she once again withdrew her hand. "I am not the type. I'm a practical woman. That is why I married Edward. He was almost thirty years older than me, a friend of my father, in need of an assistant he could not afford. My mother had lately died, and my father's military pension with her. I was faced with taking up a position as a schoolroom assistant, or marriage, and since marriage meant that I could serve as my husband's apprentice, for me the choice was an easy one. I'd always been fascinated by photography. I have a good eye for composition and I have always been an acute observer. Now that I no longer have to defer to my husband, I have been able to make a success of the business."
She had meant her little speech to remind herself of how fortunate she was. Inside her shoes, her toes were curling at the prim, buttoned-up sounding woman she had described. "I enjoy my independence."
"But are you happy, Esme? You are passionate about your work, I understand that, but is it enough? Aren't you lonely?"
How was she to answer such a question when she had never thought to ask it of herself? He was stirring up longings she had given up when she married Edward. Of course she had dreamed of falling in love. Of course she had never dreamed of a passionless marriage. Of course she was lonely. But that was the price she paid for her precious independence, wasn't it? She didn't need or want another husband to take over the business she had grown, and to take over the life she had made for herself. Every day of her working life, she looked deep into the eyes and hearts and souls of her subjects. No one had ever done that to her until now. It was unnerving.
Reluctantly, Esme withdrew her hand and got to her feet, shaking out her skirts. "The passion you imagine, the love you dream of, even if they do exist, they don't last. Sooner or later reality sets in. One would be very foolish to build a life on that kind of ephemeral feeling."
"True love isn't ephemeral, it lasts forever. You have never been in love…"
"Nor have you."
"Not yet." He got up, putting his coat on. "Are you saying I should give up on the idea? That I should do as Max tells me to, and consider practical matters, weigh up all the benefits, as if marriage was a business deal?"
No, she wanted to say. Hold to your dreams, she wanted to say. Don't compromise. As she had? "I think you should forget this conversation, Guy. I think you should go back to the party, and get on with passing muster."
He stared at her for a moment, opened his mouth to speak, and then changed his mind. As she watched him walk away, Esme told herself she'd said the right thing, even though it felt quite wrong.
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